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Saltwater Aquarium Fish - Top 10 For Any Reef Tank

When going to a local fish store (LFS), it can be always tempting to impulse buy a fancy looking fish that you have never seen or heard of before.  Listed below are saltwater aquarium fish that are best suited for virtually any community and reef setup.  Equipment is important for this hobby, but proper fish selection is critical for success.  I always would find it frustrating to see LFS sell fish that are for advanced fish keepers or not suited to the tank of the buyer (*cough* tangs).  In a later post, I will go through the top 10 saltwater aquarium fish you should avoid.

The fish in this list were selected using the following criteria:

  1. Does not require a large tank (more than 4 feet tank)
  2. Well known for being reef safe (won't nip at corals)
  3. Not overly aggressive (e.g. - Damsels)
  4. Hardy fish or fish that is available as tank bred
  5. Does not require a specialized diet 

#1 Tank Raised Clownfish (Ocellaris or Percula Species)

Saltwater Aquarium Fish

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 20 Gallons
  • Max Size - 3"
  • Temperament - Peaceful to Semi-Aggressive

The industry's most popular saltwater aquarium fish.  With the explosion of the tank raised fish industry, all sorts of designer clownfish are now available.  They can be kept in pairs as long as you buy two when young or purchase one larger and one smaller.  They are known to spawn in captivity and will host corals.  Quite simply, a reef tank is incomplete without a pair.

#2 Banggai Cardinalfish

Banggai Cardinalfish

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 30 Gallons
  • Max Size - 3"
  • Temperament - Peaceful to Semi-Aggressive

Peaceful tank mates, great personality and striking black lines make up this iconic saltwater aquarium fish. They can also be kept in pairs and will spawn in captivity.  The Banggai Cardinalfish is the poster child of how hobbyist, industry professionals, and scientists came together to support sustainable production of a marine species in captivity.   

#3 Orchid Dottyback

Orchid Dottyback

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 30 Gallons
  • Max Size - 3"
  • Temperament - Semi-Aggressive

Yes, I know this is a bad picture--but the fish is awesome. Dottybacks in general get a bad rap.  This is mostly due to the fact that most dottybacks can channel their inner damsel and create havoc in your tank.  Fortunately, the Orchid Dottyback is not one those.  They have a mild temper in a community tank and are the perfect tankmate.  It is not recommended to keep these in pairs unless you can purchase a mated pair.  There is no easy way to identify the differences between a male and female, and they do not change gender like clownfish.  Nevertheless, they are a great saltwater aquarium fish.

#4 Royal Gamma

Royal Gamma

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 30 Gallons
  • Max Size - 3"
  • Temperament - Semi-Aggressive

A striking blend of colors and personality make up this beautiful saltwater aquarium fish.  They will try to be the boss in your tank, but will generally be kept in check by clownfish, tangs, and angelfish.   They will be aggressive to similar bodied fish and their own kin.  You cannot keep both a dottyback or royal gamma in the same tank so pick the one you prefer.  I lean towards to the orchid dottyback because they are available as tank bred. 

#5 Blue Green Chromis

Blue Green Chromis

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 30 Gallons
  • Max Size - 3.5"
  • Temperament - Peaceful

A very hardy long-lived fish that will school together.  They are the neon-tetra of saltwater aquarium fish. You cannot go wrong putting this fish in your tank.

#6 Firefish

Firefish

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 10 Gallons
  • Max Size - 3"
  • Temperament - Peaceful

This is the go to fish for nano tanks.  Peaceful, quiet, striking colors, and very hardy.  They can be kept in pairs and generally the pair will be together, but it is best to purchase them young to increase your chances of success.  They are timid fish that can be harassed by more aggressive tankmates.  

#7 Six Line Wrasse

Six Line Wrasse

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 30 Gallons
  • Max Size - 3"
  • Temperament - Semi-aggressive

Wrasses are very active fish.  The sixline wrasse is no exception.  A reef-safe and hardy saltwater aquarium fish.  The only downfall with this wrasse is they are a little on the aggressive side and will harass easily intimidated fish.  It's best to keep them with other semi-aggressive fish like clownfish to avoid any tank drama.

#8 Watchman Goby

Watchman Goby

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 30 Gallons
  • Max Size - 3"
  • Temperament - Peaceful

The watchman goby is considered one of the best saltwater aquarium fish for beginners.  They can be paired with a pistol shrimp and they two will form a pair.  If you are attempting a pair, ensure that you have at least a 2" sandbed available and purchase a small shrimp like a candy cane shrimp.  If you decide not to pair them with a shrimp, they are still a great fish to have on their own and readily eat any prepared food.

#9 Midas Blenny

Midas Blenny

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 30 Gallons
  • Max Size - 6"
  • Temperament - Peaceful

The Midas Blenny is the perfect Blenny.  Colorful, great personality, and completely reef-safe. Most hobbyist who have them state they are their favorite fish in the tank.  They have no swim bladder so they are consistently moving and have an eel like look when swimming.

#10 Carpenter's Wrasse

Carpenter's Wrasse

Stats:

  • Minimum Tank Size - 55 Gallons
  • Max Size - 3"
  • Temperament - Peaceful

The only fish on the list that requires a tank larger than 3 feet.  It is generally encouraged to keep them in groups as the male will perform colorful displays to the females in the tank.  However, you will need to introduce the female first or introduce as a group.  They do change genders like clown fish.  They are one of lesser aggressive tank mates, so if you are going to keep them, make sure they are one of the first saltwater aquarium fish you put in your tank.  They are known to be jumpers so a cover is recommended.  

Honorable Mention - Chrysipera Genus of Damselfish



They do not make my top ten because some consideration needs to be made to ensure you have success with their more aggressive nature, but if you take the right steps they make the cut. You can check our damselfish article.

What's Your Recommended Saltwater Aquarium Fish?

I created this list to help starters and I know I did exclude a few excellent choices.  What saltwater fish do you think make a great start for a saltwater aquarium newbie?  Share it with us in the comment section below or you can read more about our blog here or shop for aquarium supplies at our store.  I'm sure a lot of new and potential fish keepers would love to hear your feedback :).

P.S. - Want more info on saltwater reef tanks? Check out my post title 55 saltwater reef tank words of wisdom

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    2 Responses

    Mark
    Mark

    March 04, 2017

    Hi Nolan,

    A clownfish is a saltwater fish while a goldfish and betta are freshwater fish. The would not be able to live together, but you can have two clownfish in a 30 gallon aquarium

    Nolan Anderson
    Nolan Anderson

    February 24, 2017

    Wow, what a great site for salted aquarium fish. All of the fish are excellent. But I have a 30-gallon aquarium. So can I keep here the clown fish and there is any problem if I keep here the clown fish with goldfish, betta fish. thanks for the share.

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