What is a saltwater starter fish?
When you set up a saltwater fish tank, the first fish you put in the tank (the fish you start with) could be considered starter fish. When applied broadly, the term starter fish probably refers to a fish that is good to add when setting up a saltwater tank.
An unfortunate reality when setting up a saltwater tank is that the first few starter fish you add to the tank may not live. This phenomenon is sometimes called New Tank Syndrome, and it often takes the lives of some of our first fish. Perhaps the two biggest causes of New Tank Syndrome are ammonia toxicity and fluctuation in water parameters. New filters cannot adequately clean up the waste that is produced in a new saltwater tank. That waste can become toxic and take the life of your first fish.
A good saltwater starter fish will be able to tolerate the less-than-perfect living conditions in a new tank. Not all cool saltwater fish are great starter fish. Not all hardy fish are great starter fish. Check out this list of the 6 most important attributes of a good saltwater starter fish and examples of starter fish to avoid.
Good saltwater starter fish are:
Hardy Saltwater Fish
- 1) Hardiness—saltwater starter fish must be able to tolerate harsh and possibly fluctuating aquarium. You want to select a tolerant, hardy saltwater fish species as a great starter fish
Resistant to Parasites
- 2) Parasite resistance—certain species of fish seem more prone to contract life-threatening parasite infection from nuisance parasites like saltwater ich (white spot disease), or amyloodinium (marine velvet). A good saltwater starter fish will be parasite resistant
Inexpensive Saltwater Fish
- 3) Inexpensive—saltwater fish can cost anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. It should go without saying that a good saltwater starter fish will be relatively inexpensive. That doesn’t mean you should pick the cheapest saltwater fish possible, just that a good starter fish will be relatively inexpensive.
Compatible with fish and corals
- 4) Peacefulness—since your starter fish are going to be the first fish you put in your tank, a good starter fish must be a peaceful (non-territorial, non-aggressive) species
Colorful Saltwater Fish
- 5) Vibrance—the size of your tank is going to limit the number of fish and coral you can add. Make every fish count. Don’t waste your time adding a drab or uninteresting fish.
Cool Saltwater Fish
- 6) Interesting—a good saltwater starter fish should be interesting—different species of fish have different personalities, for lack of a better word. Some are timid, some are bold, some are fast swimmers, some seem to waddle. A good starter fish will have an interesting personality. When selecting that first fish for your tank, make sure it is a cool saltwater fish.
Saltwater fish that don’t meet those criteria are probably NOT good starter fish and should not be added to your tank as one of the first fish.
Five starter fish every saltwater hobbyist should avoid
While the list above may seem like straightforward criteria to judge the best saltwater starter fish, sometimes aquarists choose fish that should be avoided. Here is a list of 5 saltwater fish that may seem like an ok choice as starter fish, but should be avoided.
- Mandarinfish—These slow-moving, psychedelic fish are some of the prettiest fish you will find at your local fish store. In all seriousness, they do meet a few of the criteria which are important in a good saltwater starter fish. They are small fish that won’t outgrow your tank. They are parasite and disease resistant, and they are generally inexpensive. The reason to avoid them as a saltwater starter fish is that they are not hardy fish. Mandarinfish are notoriously picky eaters. They specialize in eating copepods—tiny invertebrates—and will usually shun foods normally offered in a saltwater tank. Mandarinfish generally starves to death in all but the largest established reef tanks with a healthy, sustainable population of copepods.
Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse—Compared with the docile, slow-swimming Mandarinfish, Cleaner Wrasses zip around the aquarium in constant motion. They are often irresistible to new hobbyists because of their interesting behavior. As cleaners, these wrasses will clean other fish in the tank, removing dead scales and harmful parasites. Since saltwater ich is such a major problem for new saltwater tanks, it may seem like adding a cleaner wrasse may be a good choice as a saltwater starter fish—but I am here to tell you to avoid these fish. They are not good starter fish. Unfortunately, the Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse will most likely starve in your aquarium. The ONLY food they will eat is the food they pick off of your other fish. In a new tank or even an established ‘normal’ tank, there won’t be enough parasites to feed these beautiful fish. Save your money, save a life, and pick a different saltwater starter fish.
- Groupers—(This includes Panther Groupers, Miniata Groupers, and Blueline Groupers) When you see Groupers in your local fish store, they are usually small, cute and interesting. Most of the species you would encounter in your local fish store would also be hardy—but Groupers should absolutely be avoided as a saltwater starter fish. Groupers will eat almost anything alive that will fit in their mouths—and their mouths grow quite large. Unless you have a tank that is 200 gallons or larger—and you plan on keeping other huge, aggressive fish, Groupers are saltwater fish to avoid.
- Mollies/Guppies—Mollies and Guppies are very popular aquarium fish. They are hardy, inexpensive, and extremely interesting because they readily breed in captivity and give birth to live babies. In the wild, they come from estuaries and other waters considered to be brackish (which essentially refers to water that is not quite seawater and not quite saltwater—it is somewhere in between).
Because these fish have evolved to live in habitats with fluctuating salinity—they have an innate ability to adapt to changing salinity and could be slowly acclimated to life in a saltwater tank. It is the ability to acclimate to full-strength seawater, general hardiness and low cost that has supported arguments in the past for using these fish as saltwater starter fish.
- Damselfish—I see Damselfish added as possibly the most common saltwater aquarium starter fish. Unfortunately, they meet most of the criteria that make up a good starter fish. They are inexpensive, hardy, and many species are bold and vibrantly colored. The reason to avoid Damselfish as a saltwater starter fish is because they most certainly are NOT peaceful. Most species of Damselfish are aggressive, territorial, downright pugnacious fish. They will torment and harass your delicate, prized fish. They can outlive (they really are hardy) many of the fish in your tank, outcompete them for the choicest morsels of food, and can be an absolute nightmare to try and remove (once you have changed your mind about them). I have learned this problem the hard way. I had a Damselfish harass a pair of clownfish to the point of exhaustion (the clownfish’s exhaustion). Damselfish may be tempting because of their hardiness and low cost—and many local fish stores actually encourage using them as disposable fish to cycle a tank, but I encourage you to avoid them altogether. If you must have some inexpensive, related fish, check out Chromis species. Damselfish are the number one Family of saltwater starter fish to avoid.
Saltwater Starter Fish Conclusion
Selecting the right starter fish for your saltwater tank involves some research, careful planning, and patience. Just because your local fish store has it in a tank doesn’t make it a good choice for your home aquarium.
If you want to learn more about what it takes to start a successful saltwater aquarium, check out these books, The New Saltwater Aquarium Guide, available on Amazon.com. Disclosure, if you buy the book from this link, I will earn a small commission from them at no additional direct cost to you.
I’d encourage you to exhibit some caution even if the local fish store employee tells you it is a good choice (especially in the case of Damselfish). Our ocean’s reefs are in trouble—and the fish that come from those reefs are a precious resource. Resist the urge to make a spontaneous purchase. Always research your purchases first and know what they will be like when fully grown and defending a territory inside your tank. Finally, make sure you don’t make the mistake of adding one of the above Five Starter Fish Every Aquarium Hobbyist Should Avoid. They just aren’t a good fit for a new saltwater tank.
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Written by Al Ulrich
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