5 Beginner Saltwater Fish Species

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Setting up your first aquarium is always a reason for uncertainty and concern. You have a lot of things to worry about, including the tank size, plants, substrate, décor, decorative elements, tank equipment, etc.

The type of fish you’re getting can also make or break your experience as a beginner hobbyist.

Today, we will discuss the best 5 beginner fish species for your first saltwater tank.

We’ll consider several aspects here, including:

  • The fish’s requirements
  • Temperament
  • Difficulty of care

So, let’s get into it.

1. Clownfish

The clownfish is probably the most famous saltwater species you can get. Your average clownfish can grow up to 4 inches and comes with a 3-color body.

The white, orange, and black form a stripe-based pattern, giving the fish that trademark clown-like look.

The clownfish can live up to 5 years or more with good care and ranks as semi-aggressive. So, it displays some territorial tendencies and aggression when breeding or overcrowded.

Water Requirements

One clownfish demands at least 20 gallons of space since they’re fairly large and active fish. The ideal temperature sits at around 75-80 F, which is the typical range for most tropical aquarium fish.

The thing that makes clownfish more pretentious is its demand for a natural-looking setup. So, this is a reef fish, meaning that you need to use it in a reef-based setting.

The clownfish can also adapt to other environments, but it won’t be happy in the long run. And its lifespan will drop as a result.

Clownfish hates strong water currents, which shouldn’t be a problem because you’re already avoiding those in a reef setup.

Other than that, this is an omnivorous fish that will eat anything.

Temperament

The clownfish is friendly towards other fish, so long as they don’t trespass on their territory. Clownfish like to spend most of their time in their preferred safe zone and can display some snappy behavior if another fish attempt to violate their space. Other than that, they’re not aggressive.

Except, of course, when mating or when overcrowded. Clownfish can become more violent towards other members of their own species, especially during the mating season. But this is to be expected from all fish.

Difficulty of Care

Clownfish rank as easy-to-moderate in terms of difficulty of care. The only issue is that these are reef fish, so you need to house them in a reef-rich environment. Otherwise, they can get stressed and may become less active.

One thing that may confuse you at first is the fish’s sex change. All clownfish are born males, and they change their sex in adulthood. Not all of them, but the most dominant one.

The largest clownfish will become a female so that it can breed with the selected male. If that female dies for whatever reason or is removed from the tank, another male will take over the role and change its sex shortly after.

Once you get accustomed to this peculiar behavior, caring for your clownfish will become an easy-to-follow routine.

2. Yellow Tang

We had to mention yellow tangs thanks to their popularity and unique profile. Yellow tangs grow up to 8 inches, are completely yellow, and have a horse-like snout.

Which is pretty fitting, given that yellow tangs are known algae grazers.

This herbivorous species will live up to 10 years in captivity with optimal care. If this sounds impressive, consider that yellow tangs can live close to 30 years in the wild.

Water Requirements

Yellow tangs require water temperatures around 72 to 82 °F and a pH of 8.1 to 8.4. They also need at least 55 gallons per fish since the fish is quite the active swimmer. Hiding areas are also necessary given the tang’s natural instincts.

These fish like to lurk around rocks and plants to protect themselves from predators, so they require a similar aquatic setup in captivity.

Temperament

Yellow tangs are docile for the most part and won’t bother other fish swimming around their habitat. They will also become aggressive if starved, overcrowded, or when paired with very active and inquisitive fish that will pick on them regularly.

They will also display territorial and aggressive tendencies towards other yellow tangs.

Males are especially snappy in this sense, so you shouldn’t have more than 1 male per tank.

Difficulty of Care

Yellow tangs are easy to care for, although you need to be careful when setting up their environment. Yellow tangs are notorious for damaging some species of corals and can display aggression if lacking sufficient hiding areas.

Their ideal habitat is decorated with plenty of rocks, corals, and plants but also has wider swimming areas.

These fish are explorers, so they will extensively roam around their habitat. Also, keep in mind that yellow tangs are more prone to becoming infected with Ich.

So, they require a healthy and stable environment with clean waters and good filtration.

They might not be the best pick for absolute beginners who’ve never had a fish tank before. To overcome this problem, make sure you do your fair share of research regarding the yellow tang before getting one.

3. Bristletooth Tang

If you can’t find information about the bristletooth tang, try tomini tang, since they’re one and the same. This omnivorous fish will grow up to 6 inches and live around 5 years in captivity.

Although it’s a tang, the fish’s physical appearance is different from that of the yellow version. It generally comes in purple with yellow or orange dorsal and ventral fins.

The snout is normal, compared to the yellow tang, although you can still see that trademark dent in the forehead.

Water Requirements

The ideal temperature is around 75-80 °F with a pH between 8.1 and 8.4. The necessary tank size may vary, but this fish requires more space than you might expect. 3 adult bristletooth tangs need approximately 120 gallons if we’re talking about larger specimens, close to 6 inches.

That’s because these fish are extremely active around their environment and require a lot of swimming space.

You can house the 3 in 70-90 gallons, provided that the fish are smaller, around 4 inches.

Temperament

Bristletooth tangs are generally friendly and peaceful but can sometimes be a bit pretentious about their tankmates. For instance, they don’t quite appreciate the company of their own.

You should only keep 2-4 tangs in the same environment, provided you have sufficient space for all of them. And never have more than 4 tangs in the same tank since they tend to become violent towards each other.

These fish are also rather aggressive towards new tankmates. They require some time to accommodate to their new partners in swimming. Other than that, bristletooth tangs are easy to keep and care for in the long run.

They need clear waters, a stable setting, and a good, diverse diet, and they won’t ask for much else.

Difficulty of Care

I rank bristletooth tangs as moderate in terms of difficulty of care. It’s not that they’re difficult to maintain and care for, but they’re rather picky about their tankmates.

They need time to accommodate to their new neighbors, during which they might exhibit some territorial behavior occasionally.

They also need quite the space and a carefully-crafted reef environment which can be more difficult to maintain in the long run.

But, once you get accustomed to the fish’s requirements and preferences, caring for the bristletooth tang will become quite easy.

4. Lawnmower Blenny

The lawnmower blenny is ideal for any reef tank due to the fish’s predilection towards algae. This species is great for algae control and will keep a low profile when moving through the tank.

Most blennies come in tan or grey with black stripes, making for a camouflaging pattern that allows them to get lost in the aquatic environment.

It’s a great feature to have if your tankmates are larger, more aggressive, or excessively inquisitive and energetic.

Lawnmower blennies can grow up to 5 inches and live up to 5 years in captivity. Some aquarists have reported longer lifespans when providing the fish with optimal care and a natural-like environment.

Water Requirements

Lawnmower blennies are not active swimmers since they spend much of their time in hiding, around caves, and rocks. So, you might think they don’t need too much space to swim around.

And you would be wrong. I recommend at least 55 gallons for one blenny. That’s due to the fish’s grazing behavior, as blennies will constantly roam their environment in search of microalgae and micro-crustaceans.

Go for a water temperature between 70 and 82 F and moderate lighting levels. These fish like to lurk in dim-lit waters, always in cover. Such a setting will help them feel safer and at peace in their environment.

Temperament

Lawnmower blennies stay true to their name. This means that you should always see them look for food around their habitat when they’re not resting. They’re great at controlling hair algae which everybody hates for good reason.

When it comes to tankmates, the blenny is rather pretentious. Although this is a social animal, it cannot stand the presence of its own species.

This is most likely due to the blenny’s relentless appetite, causing the fish to graze for food constantly. So, food-related competition is a given.

This makes the blenny incompatible with other algae grazers and bottom feeders whose feeding territory may overlap with that of the blenny’s.

Other than that, they make for good tankmates for most other tank fish, provided they don’t bother each other too often.

To prevent that, make sure that your blenny has a variety of hiding areas where it can retreat when stressed.

Difficulty of Care

Lawnmower blennies are easy to care for since they’re not that pretentious in terms of environmental conditions and food. So long as they have sufficient algae in their environment, they will need little else.

That being said, provide your blenny with a varied diet since algae alone won’t cut it.

Also, despite the fish’s hardiness, it can be prone to some diseases and infections in poorly maintained tanks. So, ensure proper maintenance to keep your blenny happy in the long run.

5. Six Line Wrasse

We’re closing the list with a more unexpected entry. The six-line wrasse goes against everything that the previous fish species have established. This is a carnivorous, aggressive, and flashy fish that will hardly accept any tankmates.

Its body showcases amazing colors as the wrasse has an orange head with red eyes, cut by 2 horizontal white lines.

The body is blue or purple, traversed by, you guessed it, 6 orange lines from head to tail. Finally, the tail is bright-green, making it the perfect ending to the rainbow splash that is the six-line wrasse.

Also, the fish has a bright-blue ‘eye’ on the tail, designed to confuse predators and attract oblivious prey, intrigued by the eye’s flash during the fish’s tail swings.

This fish only grows up to 3 inches, but don’t worry, it makes up for its small size in behavior.

Water Requirements

You need 30 gallons or more for this fish and an environmental temperature of around 75 to 82 °F.

This is pretty much standard for any tropical fish you might consider for your aquarium. Where the wrasse is different is in its layout preferences.

The six-line wrasse demands a habitat rich in caves, rocks, and plenty of exploration spots. That’s because the fish is on a constant lookout for potential prey like snails, worms, small fish, small crustaceans, etc.

This means they should have plenty of space to explore, filled with crevices, caves, and various rocks and reef structures.

Temperament

The six-line wrasse is aggressive and territorial and tends to eat any smaller fish lurking around. Avoid small bottom dwellers since that’s where the wrasse will spend most of its time.

You should pretty much avoid any tankmate, for that matter.

The six-line wrasse is very dominant and aggressive, and you’re unlikely to find compatible mates for them.

That being said, you have some decent options you can try. The banana wrasse is a good option in this sense since it displays a similar behavior.

This allows the fish to discourage the six-line wrasse from attacking or bullying it, especially since it often grows larger and more powerful.

Difficulty of Care

Despite all these worrying facts, the six-line wrasse is actually quite manageable. As a beginner, you shouldn’t have too many problems with it, provided you understand what the fish needs.

Provide a stable and balanced diet, offer 2-3 meals per day, and keep your fish in a healthy and expansive habitat with plenty of exploration areas.

Your wrasse will remain happy and healthy so long as you meet its basic needs. Oh, and avoid any attempts to breed the fish. Sexing the wrasse is almost impossible since there are no discernable differences between males and females. And going for a 50/50 pairing attempt won’t work.

The six-line wrasse isn’t fond of sharing its habitat with another member of its own species, especially the same sex.

Pairing 2 males can quickly result in disaster since wrasse males are extremely aggressive towards each other.

How to Choose Fish for Your First Reef Tank?

There are literally countless fish species that would thrive in a well-crafted reef environment. Needless to say, they’re not all easy to keep, and many are not compatible with each other.

So, how do you know which tank fish to go for as a beginner?

I would recommend the following 3 strategies to follow when choosing your future tank inhabitants:

  • Easy to maintain – You want non-pretentious fish that eat pretty much anything and have a high tolerance for fluctuating water conditions. As a beginner, you won’t be able to keep water quality at a 10 in the long run. It will sometimes drop to 8 or lower. So, you need resilient and hardy fish that will forgive you for your slips. Also, your goal is to adapt and avoid the same mistakes in the future since no fish appreciates frequent parameter fluctuations.
  • Utility – As a beginner, you want to prioritize the fish’s utility more than its looks at first. So, you want cleaning fish, algae grazers, and bottom dwellers that remove food residues, plant matter, algae, and worms that may invade the tank. This way, you get to keep your aquarium clean while housing a variety of fish species. Just make sure all fish are compatible and won’t try to eat each other. That would be unfortunate.
  • Overall temperament – Always prioritize friendlier and more docile species. As a total beginner, you may not know how to handle aggressive or territorial species. Some fish may bully, attack, or even attempt to eat their tank mates. That said, even more docile species may become aggressive when overcrowded, starved or kept in subpar environmental conditions. So, you want to keep an eye on that as well.

Once you get past your first year, you can consider yourself moderately experienced. At this point, you can start to experiment with different other fish species and aquarium setups further to increase your level of comfort in the business.

Conclusion

These fish species are great for beginners, although you shouldn’t take them for granted.

As I’ve already explained, even these fish can become more of a nuisance if you:

  • Don’t care about their water quality
  • Don’t balance out their water parameters
  • Don’t provide a healthy, fulfilling, and diverse diet plan
  • Don’t create a natural-looking setup, etc.

Fortunately, you’ve made it to the end of today’s article, so you’re unlikely to make these mistakes moving forward.

avatar I’m Fabian, aquarium fish breeder and founder of this website. I’ve been keeping fish, since I was a kid. On this blog, I share a lot of information about the aquarium hobby and various fish species that I like. Please leave a comment if you have any question.

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