common clownfish most popular saltwater fish

A list of the 20 most popular Saltwater Fish

What is your favorite Saltwater Fish?

This list will start with an overview of the most popular saltwater fishes and then dive deeper (pun intended) into a few recommendations to help you make a good choice for your reef tank.

Remember, just because it is popular doesn’t make it a good choice. This is an area where following the crowd can lead you down the wrong path–so please read through the entire article before buying your next fish.

The 20 Most Popular Saltwater Fish List

Inspired by 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.

  1. Green Chromis (Chromis viridis)
  2. Blue Devil Damselfish (Chrysiptera cyan)
  3. Domino Damselfish (Dascyllus trimaculatus)
  4. Three Stripe Damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus)
  5. Ocellaris Clownfish/Percula 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 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 Basslet (Gramma loreto)
  20. Pajama Cardinalfish (Sphaeramia nematoptera)

If you want to find out which groups of fish are compatible with these or any other fish, check out the Saltwater Aquarium Blog Interactive Compatibility Chart and Tool

The hobby may be fond of damselfish (but I’m not)

One thing I learned quickly, from this saltwater fish list, is that the reef 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 after we have been in the hobby for years and learned our lessons. But what I neglected to account for is the fact that damselfishes 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, since I have all but written them off in terms of the addition of damsels to a peaceful community tank. 

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.

Which likely also means they are easy to catch and ship, undoubtedly another reason this group of saltwater fish dominates the list of top 20 most popular aquarium fish.

Let’s face it, the average damselfish is cheap.

You could fill your tank with fish for the price of one Picasso triggerfish,  copperband butterflyfish, Dogface pufferfish or powder brown tang.

It’s just a shame that the majority of these brilliantly colored fish from this list 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 list

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, from among this list of the 20 most popular saltwater fish.

This list below has my recommendations for a can’t miss and popular saltwater fish species:

  1. Green Chromis
  2. Common Clownfish (but pick the aquacultured variety)
  3. Banggai Cardinalfish (aquaculture)
  4. Coral Beauty
  5. Royal Gramma
  6. Pajama Cardinalfish

Green Chromis

green chromis is one of the most popular saltwater fish

The Chromis viridis, or Green Chromis, is the #1 most imported saltwater fish species in the entire aquarium trade.  Mostly because of their very affordable price, great coloration, the boldness and energy they bring to the tank, and the fact that they tend to shoal.

Aquarium owners who want that ‘schooling look’ most commonly buy these colorful little fish to provide that.

These saltwater fishes are relatively small, growing to a size of 3 1/2 inches, and require a good amount of open space for swimming. In captivity, the Green Chromis may live 8 – 15 years–although if you are purchasing a shoal, the lifespan is likely shorter for most of them.

You can read more about them here.

Ocellaris clownfish

Undoubtedly, the common clownfish is the MOST POPULAR SALTWATER FISH. It ranks as the #5 most commonly imported fish (meaning wild-caught, I imagine) and there is also a zillion (that is a scientific term)  that are from aquaculture facilities.

Ocellaris clownfish will host a bubble tip anemone

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.

There are a few reasons I am such a big lover of, and advocate for clownfishes. For starters, they are great beginner saltwater fish.

Common clownfishes are slow, waddling swimmers that are generally site-attached, meaning, they pick an area of the territory and pretty much spend their time there–so they don’t need a lot of space and can be kept in all but the smallest aquariums.

They easily pair up. Which is fun, and sometimes that means clownfish babies! You can learn about clownfish breeding here.

Related: Clown fish care, Best clownfish tank mates, 19 clownfish types, Snowflake clownfish, Picasso clownfish

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 is 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.

Related: Banggai cardinalfish care, Breeding the Banggai Cardinalfish

Coral Beauty Angelfish

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. Most importantly, they are readily available at your local fish store.

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 Royal Gramma

The Royal Gramma, Gramma loreto, is a great beginner fish for the new saltwater aquarium.  and belongs to a group of fishes called the fairy basslets.

The reasons I love them so much are because they are perfectly sized, beautifully colored, hardy,  tolerant of the conditions within a saltwater tank and spend their time out in the open, rather than in crevices, hiding.

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.

Royal Grammas are cave-spawning saltwater fish that reproduce in harems. That means a single male tends to spawn with more than one female. The male makes a nest out of macroalgae, which is where the eggs are laid night after night.

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. PJ’s have awesome coloration, so cool it almost looks artificial. They have giant eyes and are peaceful and are available through aquaculture.

Shop around for the aquacultured variety, because 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.

small pajama cardinalfish

Sometimes recommended



Firefish are a great fish, stunning to look at. They are one of the most colorful saltwater fish types–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 space. They are larger fish, compared with the common clownfish, yet are equally easily cared for.

tomato clownfish cool saltwater fish

The scientific name of the Tomato Clownfish is Amphiprion frenatus.

They are beautiful fish with a reddish-orange color that will turn to a darker brown color in more mature females. As juveniles, they have 3 white stripes, just like the common clownfish–but A. frenatus clowns lose their second and third stripes as they get older.

The iconic juvenile-to-adult has a single large white band just behind the eye, like in the images above. Being very hardy, they will eat live, frozen, and prepared foods with gusto. Tolerant of water conditions and bold/active inside the aquarium glass, They are a reasonable choice for a first-time aquarium owner or anyone who is looking for an alternative to the ubiquitous common clownfish.

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, they are also one of the most aggressive and territorial species of clownfish. They are notoriously territorial and should be the last fishes you add to the tank, if possible.

If you want to have a mated pair of these fish in your tank, the traditional advice is to buy a very large fish with a very small fish. The larger saltwater fish will very likely be a female. The smaller one will probably be a juvenile male. All the different types of clownfish start out as males when they are juveniles. The largest, most dominant fish becomes a female. Since these saltwater fish are so aggressive, you don’t want two similarly sized individuals trying to fight for dominance. If you stack the deck by mixing a large and small fish, they are each more likely to accept their place without a lot of bloodshed (and fin shed).

Flame Angelfish

The Flame Angel fish, Centropyge loricula, is one of the most popular dwarf angelfish species. Just take a look at the breathtaking coloration of this spectacular fish and you can see why. They display vertical black bars on firey red sides and deep blue back fin ends.

Their average lifespan is between 5 – 7 years, but some may live longer. All Flame Angelfish are born female. In the wild, the alpha fish changes gender to male while the rest of the harem remains female.

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. Of all the fish on this list, they are perhaps the most likely to nip at zoanthids or other soft polyps, but there are also lots of reports of them being reef safe.

The price tag and polyp-nipping risk (although not a huge risk) are really all that puts them in this category of sometimes recommended.

Want to see a burst of flaming-red color, but aren’t sure about whether or not you want an angelfish? Learn more about the flame hawkfish as an alternative. 

You should also check out these 25 most beautiful types of saltwater angelfish.

Mandarinfish Dragonet

The mandarinfish, also known as the mandarin goby, is an amazingly beautiful fish. They are small, slow-swimming, and beautiful, which is why they are so frequently collected and purchased.


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. If you can meet their demanding nutritional needs, they are relatively long-lived fish. Their expected lifespan is comparable to clownfishes. You can expect a fat, well-fed mandarin to live 10- 15 years if you’re lucky.

Since they only grow to be about 3-4 inches in length, have a narrow body shape, and are not open-water swimmers, they are suitable for almost any size tank.

mandarin goby

The greatest challenge is that you have to provide it with a constant supply of live copepods to eat. There are also reports of owners getting them to accept brine shrimp nauplii. To learn more, check out these articles:

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.

These fish could be potentially hazardous if they end up pestering an invertebrate like a sea hare slug that would end up inking, and nuking, the entire tank. Yikes.

How are you supposed to know which fish you can keep together? Check out the saltwater fish compatibility chart. 

Blue Hippo Tang (Also known as the Regal Tang)

Often sold as tiny, 1-inch juvenile saltwater fish, the adult blue tang (Paracanthurus hepatus) might look like a tiny, fish-nugget-sized fish, but it can grow up to be 6-inches in length. Most importantly, this fish is an open-water swimmer–which is a difficult environment to create in the home reef tank. It is generally recommended that you keep this majestic fish in a very large tank (180 gallons or more) in order to provide it with the swimming room required to stay healthy.

sick blue hippo tang
This is a fish I saw in an office tank ‘maintained’ by a maintenance service

Made extremely famous in the movies Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, this regal fish is often sold at an extremely small size and kept in a tank that is too small for it and is therefore prone to skin parasites, like saltwater ich and to head and lateral line disease.

If you do decide to add one to your reef tank, be sure to feed it regularly (2 or more times each day, if you can manage) with nori or other high-quality seaweed foods.

If you’re looking for a better alternative, you might prefer one of the smallest tangs, which have smaller tank requirements. Tang fish can also be helpful algae eaters, you may want to try one o the best algae-eating saltwater fish instead.


  • 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, but they are also known for the helpful service they provide of munching on bristle worms.

If you want to check out some better alternatives to the wrasses on this list, check out the reef safe Melanurus wrasse and the Yellow Coris Wrasse.


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 the amount of fish that are imported into the country. There are no fish with legs on this list. Hahaha. Why would there be?

What is totally missing here are the most popular aquacultured fish–and it might not reflect the purchasing habits of other countries (shout out to my friends in the UK, South Africa, and other locations!!)

I would expect that maybe some other fish like the pink skunk clownfish, orchid dottyback, aiptasia-eating filefish, 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.

Neon goby on orange and yellow coral
Check out the amazing neon goby

There are also fish like yellow tang, which are extremely popular but have become harder to acquire due to fishing regulations, and the foxface rabbitfish which would likely be even more popular than they already are, except for the fact that they grow to be quite large, and therefore are limited to only the largest tanks.

While this list of the most popular saltwater fish certainly gives us a great place to start. These aren’t the only great species you can find.

A few other great, popular saltwater fish not listed here are the lawnmower blenny, melanurus wrasse, and the diamond goby.

Other related reading

If you’re looking for saltwater fish recommendations for a specifically sized aquarium, check out these stocking guides:

If you enjoyed this article and want to continue your journey learning about caring for saltwater fish in your marine aquarium, you may also be interested in these other popular articles:

Aquarium industry, coral care, and saltwater fish statistics

If you’re looking for data relevant to the aquarium industry, coral care, or saltwater fish statistics, check out these posts:

50 Best aquarium industry statistics

Coral care and saltwater fish statistics


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?


Rhyne 2012

For more information

Check out this video that shares some info about a few saltwater fish that should be avoided:

3 Saltwater Fish Beginners Should AVOID!





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