Selecting Fish For Your Saltwater Aquarium

There is more to it than you may think. Before you buy that pretty fish... Check out these tips on how to select fish for your saltwater aquarium. Knowing what you plan to add in your aquarium will give you more success. Many fish are unique and colorful and we want to have them all in our aquarium but unfortunately they can not all be kept together and you need a plan for success.

Here at we are working on a brand-new series of videos, where we take you step-by-step from selecting fish all the way to introducing them to your saltwater aquarium. I recommend you sign up for our newsletter.

About me and my own experience:

My name is Jeff Hesketh and I’m the guy behind Mad Hatter’s Reef and the Saltwater Aquarium Radio podcast. I've been in the saltwater aquarium side of the hobby for the last 10 years. But, I've had aquariums since I was a boy. Currently I have about 1000 gallons of saltwater aquarium systems in my home and they are ranging from 260 gallons to as little as 5 gallons. In this video and in future installments, we will create useful content about setting up and maintaining saltwater aquariums. It's mainly to help people be successful from our ventures.

Let's jump into it. Selecting fish for your saltwater aquarium we put together a little PowerPoint to help illustrate something that we're going to be talking about because if you're anything like me, you're a visual learner. Check out the video and be sure to sign up for’s Newsletter, so you can stay up to date when we roll-out more videos and articles just like this one.

In the video below we are going to be talking about the process that I used to stock my saltwater aquariums. I will start that by making a fish wish list. Now it doesn't have to be anything fancy, doesn't have to be an Excel sheet, it could be on a scrap piece of paper. It basically is just a way to take notes on fish that you want to keep in your saltwater aquarium.

Now a few things that we need to consider when we are putting this wish list together:

  • The aquarium size, how big does aquarium need to be, how many fish are we going to be putting in it.
  • How big does a fish get as adult size.
  • Habitat requirements, does it need open spaces, does it need a lot of work, some fish have certain requirements.
  • How much is in the tank, what is the care level of the fish, is it easy or hard to keep, is it a moderate level fish.
  • We need to consider the temperament and compatibility with its tank mates. Are we putting two fish together that shouldn't be together, are they part of the food chain, is a clown fish food for a larger fish.
  • What’s the fishes diet, this is something that is very important what does it eat because if they eat invertebrates, it's going to eat up your cleaning crew or your cleaner shrimp or whatever type of invertebrates you have in a tank.
  • Is the fish reef safe, is it going to eat corals when you put it in the tank If you have an established Reef Aquarium and you put a fish in that is going to pick on corals,  you can become very upset.
  • Is the fish invertebrate safe? I know if I bought a cleaner shrimp brought it home and put in the tank and it got eaten I’d be upset.

For example: Fish Wish-list

So here is an example of a fish wish-list, on the upper left hand corner we have the fish name, Adult size, Tank size needed, Temperament, Diet, whether it’s reef safe, Invert safe, and care level of the fish.

Once you have this information you can make an assessment as to what size tank you would want to have depending on the fish that you want to keep. Now that's the ideal situation, but it doesn't always work out that way. You might already have a tank, let’s say you have a 75-gallon tank, you have already bought all the equipment and now it's time to figure out what you want to put in there for fish.

Using your fish Wish-list you're going to come up with a list of fish that is going to work for the size tank that you have. A 75-gallon tank would work for a clownfish, a neon dottyback, a cardinal fish, a flame angel and a fathead anthias. We know this because of our research that we've done when we’re putting a wish list together. Some of the fish that we are not able to get in the 75 gallon would be a powder blue tang, the butterflyfish, and the clown triggerfish, due to the fact that they are not invert safe or reef safe.

When you sit back and look at what works and what doesn't work, it makes sense that a 75-gallon aquarium,  you know, to be able to get more than 6 or 7 fish in the tank, such as a blue tang, or butterflyfish, or trigger fish, is just unacceptable.

Let’s say you really want to have a Blue tang, so you have it in the budget to be able to increase the size of your tank from 75 gallons to 150 gallons. You made some deals and you made it happen. We already know what we can put in there, but we were able to increase the amount of those fish that we had on our fish wish list. To also get a pair of clownfish,  four cardinal fish, and a little school of M/F anthias that we can put in the tank, we have a lot more tank to work with, we can increase the bioload without stressing out the tank. Now we can get the blue tang in the tank and it's going to have plenty of room.

That still keeps the butterflyfish and the triggerfish on the chopping block so to speak.  Those two fish are very different fish and they belong in different systems.  The butterflyfish should be in a fish only system and the triggerfish really belongs in a predator tank.

Now we're going to take our fish wish list and turn it into a stocking plan, and we figured out what we can have in the tank.  A stock plan is based on looking at temperament of the fish. We want to stock peaceful fish and work our way up to aggressive. The next step is to consider size, smallest to largest. Keep in mind that temperament trumps size just because it’s a small fish doesn't mean that it's a good neighbor.

Final thoughts on selecting fish for saltwater aquariums.

It's a very common practice when somebody is looking for a puppy or dog that they try to find the right breed for them. Often, they're looking at the size of the breed, how big it grows when it's full-grown, and the temperament of the breed. They also consider the care level of the dog. People spend countless hours researching trying to find the right dog for them, in the aquarium hobby this isn't something that is practiced very often. Far too often, people walk into a store and see a fish and buy it. They have no idea what the care level for the fish is or what it needs to exist.

My hope is that you take what we mentioned above in this article and put it to work for you. My bet is,  if you take the fish wish list and turn it into a stocking plan, you are going to be much more successful in this hobby. Thank you for joining me and I hope this article was helpful for you. If you want to stay up to date on more articles and videos in this series please sign up for newsletter.

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