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beginner marine tank fish

Keeping a fish aquarium is a rewarding pastime enjoyed by millions of people. Not only is a well-maintained fish tank a beautiful thing to behold, but it may even be good for health. Interacting with aquarium fish has been linked to positive effects like reduced blood pressure and lowered stress and anxiety.

There's just one question: what do you look for in beginner marine tank fish?

The terms marine fish and tropical fish are often used interchangeably, though they're very different. Finding marine fish for beginners can be a greater challenge, as maintaining a salt water aquarium is more a labor of love. But to those up to the task, the work is well worth the reward.

If you're up to an energizing and illuminating hobby, here's what to look for in your first tankmates, and a brief list of potential candidates.

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Top 3 Mistakes Newbies Make Setting Up Their Fish Tank.


What to look for in Beginner Marine Tank Fish

It might be tempting to stock your aquarium with the most colorful vibrant varieties you can find. While your tank may look gorgeous for a few moments, combining random varieties is a good way for an aquarium to descend into chaos.

A good beginner fish should have a few key qualities. They should be inexpensive, hardy, good tank-mates, and do well even in a small fish tank. 

To illustrate African cichlids are popular aquarium fish due to their curious and extroverted personalities. They're also an aggressive, territorial breed that needs a larger tank in order to thrive. So maintaining a happy ecosystem with them might be too ambitious for a novice.

Marine TangMarine Tang

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Another good example is the lionfish, which became popular in the trade some years ago because of its exotic appearance. But they're difficult to care for thanks to their predatory nature making them poor tankmates and venomous quills making them difficult to handle.

Amateur aquarists who got in over their heads started releasing them into coastal waters rather than dispose of them. It didn't take long for them to establish themselves as an invasive species that continues to threaten native ecosystems to this day.

So in essence, you want fish that play well with others, can endure a range of environmental conditions, and if possible, are inexpensive. To that end, here are some picks for beginners.

1. Clownfish

Nick Hobgood, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Who doesn't love a clown?

The ocellaris clownfish — or the common clownfish — is the most popular saltwater fish in the world. Even before Finding Nemo made them world-famous, they were well-loved by aquarists for their dazzling, orange color, contrasted by brilliant white stripes. And if that wasn't precious enough, they seem to swim with an adorable "waddling" motion that makes them a perennial favorite.

And not only are they a delight to watch, but they're easy to care for as well. Thanks to their popularity, food is easy to find. And aquarium-bred specimens tend to be hardier than their wild counterparts, so they can endure the care of a less-than-expert keeper.

They're also more active than you might imagine. If you're at all familiar with them you probably know that wild clownfish tend to hide amongst anemones for protection, but aquarium varieties have little problem swimming in the open amongst their tankmates. So even without their signature shelters, they make a great addition to almost any aquarium.

And if you want a fish that's as striking but on the opposite end of the spectrum, black ocellaris clownfish are also available.

2. Green Chromis

Green ChromisGreen Chromis
Richard Ling, CC BY-SA 2.0

Easy going, easy to find, and easy to feed, the green Chromis is one of the easiest saltwater fish for beginners.

A shoaling fish, they like to form up in schools that dazzle the eye while in motion. And best of all, they're hardy and low-maintenance. Eager to eat a variety of common foods, you'll find it easy to care for them.

3. coral Angelfish

Coral Beauty AngelfishCoral Beauty Angelfish
Jenny (JennyHuang) from Taipei, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like the common clownfish, angelfish are popular choices saltwater tanks. However, that shouldn't necessarily be the case. Many angelfish subvert their divine name by being territorial and aggressive towards their tank mates.

The exception is the coral beauty angelfish.

Also known as the two-spined angelfish, this dwarf species is even-tempered for its kind and makes a colorful addition to any tank. It's also hardy, inexpensive, and readily available.

One important caveat is that they tend to do better in larger tanks. While they're peaceful compared to angelfish, they can show a more territorial side in cramped quarters or if they've been in the tank for a long time.

4. Flame Angelfish

Flame AngelfishFlame Angelfish
Andreas März from Darmstadt, Germany, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The flame angelfish, also called the Japanese pygmy angelfish, is another specimen that subverts the angelfish's reputation for aggression. It's a classic choice due to its tendency to adapt well to aquarium life.

Not lovers of conflict, their best kept either alone or in mated pairs amongst other non-aggressive species.

That said, although they're often said to be good additions to a reef aquarium, they are known to sometimes nip at stony corals, zoanthids, tridacnid clam mantles, and some soft coral polyps. So if these invertebrates are in your tank, the flame angelfish may not always prove trustworthy.

5. lawnmower Blenny

Lawnmower BlennyLawnmower Blenny
Denis Cheong (Zylantha), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The lawnmower blenny goes by many names. You might see it labeled as the algae blenny, jeweled rock-skipper blenny, sailfin blenny, or the rock blenny. But a fish by any other name would still make an excellent addition to your first saltwater tank.

For one, they're great algae eaters, so they'll help your fish tank filter keep the water nice and clear. Particularly in new tanks, since they tend to see a lot of algae growth as nitrate levels increase. The lawnmower blenny, true to that name, will help keep pesky growths in check as your ecosystem matures.

6. Auriga Butterfly

Auriga ButterflyfishAuriga Butterflyfish
IIP Photo Archive, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like angelfish, butterflyfish are prized for their bright colors and distinctive silhouette. They can, however, be difficult to raise.

Fortunately, the Auriga, also called the threadfin butterflyfish, is one of the easier species to rear. Give them a tank with ample hiding spots, and they'll make happy fellows with other non-aggressive fish.

The only issue with them is that it can sometimes be difficult to convince them to eat prepared fish foods. Watching them eat before you buy them can be one way to make sure you get a more eager specimen.

Alternatively, offering them frozen Mysis shrimp seems to help them get started. And if they see other fish in a tank eating certain foods, it can sometimes help them realize that the prepared food is edible.

7. Racoon butterflyfish

Raccoon ButterflyfishRaccoon Butterflyfish
Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This cousin of the aforementioned Auriga is another relatively easy butterflyfish to rear. Also known as the crescent-masked or lunule butterflyfish, the care instructions for these fish are similar to their counterparts.

Give them plenty of space to hide and they should do well in a peaceful tank. And like their cousins, you may have to help them learn to feed on prepared fish foods, though they tend to love Mysida shrimp.

8. Yellowtail Damselfish

Yellowtail DamselfishYellowtail Damselfish
Carl Malamud, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you want a fish that's low-maintenance but still a treat to watch, the yellowtail damselfish is for you. Extremely hardy, they're easy to pick out in any tank thanks to their striking colors.

They're both non-aggressive and tend to leave corals alone, making them great additions to reef aquariums. They feed readily and tend to have no issues acclimating to aquarium life.

9. Fire fish Goby

Fire Fish GobyFire Fish Goby
Rickard Zerpe, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Don't let the name fool you, the fire fish goby is one of the more timid fish on this list. They're best kept on their own unless they're in a large tank and tend not to come out of hiding unless they feel well-at-ease. When they do emerge though, they add a fleeting spark of fire to their watery environment.

Peaceful as they are, they won't cause trouble amongst your other fish. Their only issue is that they've been known to leap from their tank when startled. So if you plan to keep them, a covered aquarium is an absolute must.

10. Blue Tang

Blue TangBlue Tang
Tewy, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You'll easily recognize these vibrant fish as "Dory" from the Finding Nemo films. They're relatively docile fish, though in certain circumstances they can cause issues. While they're not usually aggressive towards other species, adults will fight over territory unless they have a large tank with enough shelter to accommodate them.

They also have different dietary requirements from other tang species. While their cousins are herbivorous, domesticated blue tangs need meaty supplements to replace the lack of zooplankton they would feed on in the wild.

Shrimp is the best replacement. Finely chopped fresh or frozen shrimp, mysida shrimp, and brine shrimp will do the trick. Just be sure to mix in some vegetation like nori to round out their diet.

Beginner marine Tank Fish to Get You Started

These marine fish for beginners are only the beginning. After getting your bearings with a few beginner marine tank fish, it won't be long before you find yourself seeking more challenging setups and specimens.

But in your endeavors, don't forget to care for your finned friends. They're more than mere decorations, after all. With time, you'll start to notice that fish can have distinct personalities all their own.

So be sure to give them the safekeeping they deserve. For a basic skill every aquarist should have, check out our fish keeping e-book.

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