common clownfish most popular saltwater fish

A list of the 20 most popular Saltwater Fish

A list of the 20 Most Popular Saltwater Fish

What is your favorite Saltwater Fish? Inspired by Rhyne 2012 and an article from CORAL Magazine, I compiled this list of the most popular saltwater fishRhyne reported on this based on data from importers in a research article titled: Revealing the Appetite of the Marine Aquarium Fish Trade: The Volume and Biodiversity of Fish Imported into the United States.

The 20 Most Popular Saltwater Fish

  1. Green Chromis (Chromis viridis)
  2. Blue Devil Damselfish (Chrysiptera cyan)
  3. Domino Damselfish (Dascyllus trimaculatus)
  4. Three Stripe Damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus)
  5. Common Clownfish/Perculat Clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris/percula)
  6. Yellowtail Damselfish (Chrysiptera parasema)
  7. Four Stripe Damselfish (Dasyllus manures)
  8. Azure Damselfish (Chrisptera hemicyanea)
  9. Firefish (Nemateleotris magnifier)
  10. Banggai Cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni)
  11. Mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus)
  12. Blue Hippo Tang (Paracanthurus hepatus)
  13. Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatrus)
  14. Flame Angelfish (Centropyge loricula)
  15. Maroon Clownfish (Premnas biaculeatus)
  16. Coral Beauty (Centropyge bispinosa)
  17. Six-line Wrasse (Pseudocheilinus hexateaenia)
  18. Tomato Clownfish (Amphiprion frenatus)
  19. Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto)
  20. Pajama Cardinalfish (Sphaeramia nematoptera)

How many of these most popular saltwater fish on this list do you have? Are there any that are on your wish list? Any reaction to the list? Which ones would you add to your saltwater tank?

The hobby is fond of damselfish

One thing I learned quickly, from this list, is that the saltwater aquarium hobby is quite fond of damselfish.

Frankly, I was surprised to see so many damselfish. I guess I’ve been a little slow on the uptake there. Damselfish are so rarely a major part of the reefs that many of us create in our homes, but what I neglected to account for is the fact that damselfish are the first fish that nearly ALL of us add to our tanks. They are the gateway fish that help us transition from that African Cichlid tank to saltwater.


Sure, they come with listings and advice that suggests…be careful…these fish are aggressive…but if we cut our teeth in the hobby with freshwater cichlids…we know all about aggression. Aggression doesn’t scare us.

I also missed another obvious sign. Every local fish store with saltwater fish has a tank full of damselfish. Including PETCO. The signs were all there, but in my aquarium snobbery, I somehow minimized the importance of the lowly damselfish. There is no argument that most damselfish are cute, small in size (which makes them an appropriately-sized fish for most tanks)–but I can’t help but think that what is truly driving the purchase is the price tag. Let’s face it, the average damselfish is cheap. You could fill your tank with fish for the price of one flame angelfish. It’s just a shame that the majority of these brilliantly colored fish aren’t well-suited for the average community tank. It seems like there is clearly a market for inexpensive community saltwater fish, which is why the damselfishes are some of the most popular saltwater fish.

Recommended cool saltwater fish

Not all fish are created equal. From this list of most common fish, I’ve compiled a sub-list here of the 6 best choices, if you’re looking for a commonly available  and cool saltwater fish:

  • Green Chromis
  • Common Clownfish (but pick the aquacultured variety)
  • Banggai Cardinalfish (aquacultured)
  • Coral Beauty
  • Royal Gramma
  • Pajama Cardinalfish

Green chromis

green chromis is one of the most popular saltwater fish

The green chromis is a great community fish, often purchased 3-7 at a time to create a school. You can read more about them here.

Common clownfish

common clownfish most popular cool saltwater fish

Cool saltwater fish

Undoubtedly, the common clownfish is THE MOST POPULAR SALTWATER FISH. Every tank should have a pair of common clownfish…that is…unless you already picked another species of clownfish. These are great fish and should be an early purchase for just about everyone. The data used in this report were for wild-caught fish. There is no reason to buy a wild-caught clownfish. Please ask your local fish store for aquacultured clownfish, also called captive-bred.

Banggai Cardinalfish


banggai cardinalfish, a cool saltwater fish

I think people tend to either love or hate the Banggai Cardinalfish, but clearly enough people love them to make them one of the most popular saltwater fish. This fish is relatively easy to spawn in a reef tank (by saltwater fish standards) and they will pair up. Use caution, they seem friendly towards each other as juveniles, but when the adults grow up and pair-off, they can get down-right nasty. Still, aquacultured Banggai Cardinalfish are one of my very favorite reef fish. Please, please, please (does it sound like I’m begging you? That’s fine, as long as it works) don’t purchase wild-caught Banggai.

They are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (which means they are headed towards extinction). The issue is complex and beyond the scope of this article here–but please take my recommendation and get this cool saltwater fish from an aquaculture facility, not from the ocean.

Personally, I think these fish are amazing. They are one of my favorites.

Coral Beauty

number two on the saltwater aquarium starter fish list is the coral beauty angelfish

The Coral Beauty is a beginner’s angelfish. They are inexpensive (by Dwarf angelfish standards), vibrantly colored, active swimmers, and don’t have very restrictive or specialized dietary needs. They are a great reef fish.

 Royal Gramma

3757 aquaimages

With a bright purple head and a yellow body/tail, this bold and beautiful fish will spruce up any tank. They are very hardy and relatively inexpensive, which is a combination that makes the Royal Gramma a great saltwater fish.

Pajama Cardinalfish

Pajama cardinal fish
The Pajama Cardinalfish is the fishy cousin to the Banggai Cardinalfish. You can keep them in groups, which is cool. They have awesome coloration, so cool it almost looks artificial. They have giant eyes and are peaceful. They are available through aquaculture, but most of the stores I see have wild-caught fish because they are cheap and abundant. If you can afford it, I recommend you spend a little more to get the aquacultured variety.

Sometimes recommended



These are a great fish, stunning to look at–but they are jumpers. Make sure you have a tight-fitting lid. I’m not being melodramatic when I tell you that I had a tank without a lid and found them on the floor in the morning. I had them in a tank with a lid and LOVED this fish. I left the lid open one night by accident (got distracted, walked away) and found it on the floor in the morning. For whatever reason, these fish love to check out the floor. If you love the look of the firefish and want an even cooler saltwater fish, check out the purple firefish.

Tomato Clownfish

tomato clownfish


There are a few different species of clownfish within the tomato clownfish complex. Many of these can be a good choice for your own aquarium, as long as you have the space. They are larger fish, compared with the common clownfish, yet are equally easily cared for.

tomato clownfish cool saltwater fish

Maroon clownfish

maroon clownfish

Maroon clownfish are very cool looking–and I would even consider them to be extremely cute, as juveniles, which may influence your purchasing decision. However, when all grown up, big mama, the maroon female, can be quite aggressive. If you are prepared to deal with that, they are great fish.

Flame Angelfish

flame angelfish

Collection pressures are tough on these fish, they can be expensive, but they are stunning to look at. I’ve kept them from time to time and have always appreciated the color and personality they brought to the tank. The price tag is really all that puts them in this category.


mandarinfish also known as mandarin goby

These fish are shy, picky eaters that are typically not best kept with the hustle and bustle of a mixed reef. You should only keep them if you’re willing to culture live foods 0r spend a small fortune on purchased live foods.

Not recommended fish

I don’t mean to be so opinionated here…but the rest of the fish on this list are not recommended. They may be popular, they may be imported by the metric ton, but they are not a great fit for most tanks. There will be exceptions, I’m sure, but try to avoid these fish if possible.


blue devil damselfish

  • Blue Devil Damselfish (Chrysiptera cyan)
  • Domino Damselfish (Dascyllus trimaculatus)
  • Three Stripe Damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus)
  • Yellowtail Damselfish (Chrysiptera parasema)
  • Four Stripe Damselfish (Dasyllus manures)
  • Azure Damselfish (Chrisptera hemicyanea)

As a general rule, these damselfishes can be territorial and aren’t worth it. Try to pick something else. A few of these are the fish I started out with, when I began in the hobby, so I don’t mean to sound hypocritical–rather I hope you’ll learn from my experience and not purchase them.

Hippo Tang

  • Blue Hippo Tang (Paracanthurus hepatus)

sick blue hippo tang

Made extremely famous in the movies Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, the Blue Hippo Tang is often harvested when extremely small and is very prone to parasites and lateral line disease. They are awesome looking but are best left to the pros.


  • Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatrus)
  • Six-line Wrasse (Pseudocheilinus hexateaenia)

cleaner wrasse

The Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse often starves in captivity because it literally needs parasites to be abundantly available to stay alive. Hopefully, you don’t have a permanent abundance of parasites in your tank. That would be a very difficult thing to sustain.

Six-line Wrasses are pugnacious.


The one big caveat for this data set is that the data about the most popular saltwater fish shows the most popular saltwater fish in terms of what is imported. What is totally missing here are the most popular aquacultured fish. I would expect that maybe some other fish like the pink skunk clownfish or neon goby might pop onto the list if you included aquacultured fishes. Otherwise, it seems that this data set is a fairly robust way of assessing the true demand in the hobby.


  1. Great article. I think you might have mentioned that this article was written without bias towards aquarium size…e.g., Coral Beauty shouldn’t be kept in an aquarium smaller than 100 galls – my opinion. When I read it I was thinking about my 29 gallon (with refugium) and I will bet other readers did too.

    But, another great article.

  2. Author


    Great point, thanks for clarifying. That is certainly an important consideration for keeping the Coral Beauty and is a great addition by you. thank you.

  3. Enjoyed the article Al. Reminds me of how lucky I am my 6 line isn’t aggressive!

  4. Author

    Thanks for the comment Muttley. You bring up a good point that is very worth mentioning. It’s actually awesome that you’ve had good success, because 6-lines are awesome looking fish. I love their eyes.

    It is worth noting, just as you point out, individual fish will have individual variations to their ‘personalities’ and behavior. Each tank is a somewhat unique environment and each animal brings with it a unique set of experiences. So while I do try to share my own experiences as well as what I believe to be collectively true, you will find that individual results will vary.

    For those of you thinking about a six line or damsel (based on my fairly one-sided negative reviews here), keep in mind you may be ok in the end…that’s part of the fun and challenge of this hobby, seeing what happens in the world you create…but if your fish is a jerk…don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

  5. I have a Christmas Wrass and he’s gorgeous and calm. Just added a file fish today. 3 tangs Gobys small
    Hippo Tang and a few others not on your list. I have 2 Psychadelic Mandarins and contrary to belief they are very easy to raise. Sheepish when first in the pond, place food where they make their ( safe place) then make a trail of food, I use Nutra Mar prawn roe. I start the feed in am and at night and keep moving the ( safe food supply area with a turkey baster and make a trail around the rocks, keeping the trail longer as they get bolder and start to follow it. The Hansel and Gretel technique. I started this with one and then got him a girlfriend and he taught her how to follow the path. Now they travel all over the rocks and are very visible and started mating. Question, can the spotted and psychadelic co exist?

  6. Author

    Hi Robin, thanks for sharing your list and experiences here. I would like to applaud your success with the Mandarins. It sounds like they are taking quite nicely to your tank and husbandry. Great work. For the purposes of others out there, it is important to consider Robin’s experience and note these fish can do quite well. It is not always the case, however. In terms of keeping the two species together, I have no first-hand experience there. Do you have somewhere to safely remove the fish if trouble ensues?

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