5 Traits of a “Beginner” Marine Fish

Captive-bred Banggai Cardinalfish are a great example of a beginner fish

Captive-bred Banggai Cardinalfish are a great example of a beginner fish

What exactly does it mean when we say that a marine fish is “good for beginners”? After all, it’s not like certain fish species come with training wheels or have a set of care instructions tattooed on their dorsal fins (though I may just have to patent that idea). So what sets a “beginner fish” apart from ones better suited to more experienced hobbyists or even experts? While there are no hard-and-fast rules here, I recommend that hobby newcomers look for the following five traits when shopping for fish:

1) Community compatible

There are always exceptions, but most novice hobbyists likely want to have an interesting mix of fish species rather than get too specialized. That means that any fish acquired should coexist in relative peace and harmony with its tankmates provided proper order of introduction is observed.

Notice the emphasis on “proper order of introduction.” If you ignore the rule of introducing fish in the order of least aggressive to most aggressive, you’ll end up with chaos no matter how beginner-friendly the fish may be otherwise. Of course, some fish—such as clown triggers—become so explosively violent that they have no place in a community tank regardless of when they’re introduced.

2) Hardy and adaptable

From time to time, beginners (and quite a few more experienced hobbyists, I might add) are going to make mistakes that negatively impact water quality and chemistry. Beginner-friendly fish, therefore, need to have the constitution to take these fluctuations in stride. Now, I’m not saying they should be able to withstand outright neglect or flagrant carelessness (which will kill even the toughest fish), just that they can’t be overly sensitive to minor parameter shifts.

Many of the pomacentrids (clownfishes and other damsels) fit the bill here, though some of these will definitely not satisfy the first requirement of community compatibility—choose judiciously.

3) Ease to feed

Here I’m talking about species that will accept most standard aquarium fare—possibly including dry foods—shortly or immediately after introduction with little to no coaxing. It’s best to hold off trying specialized feeders (such as anthias, various butterflyfishes, and dragonets) until you get a good handle on keeping the easy feeders.

4) Suitable for middling-sized tanks

It’s probably safe to say that most novice hobbyists want to get their feet wet with a modest-sized aquarium to see how they like it before taking the plunge into a really big system. At the same time, nano tanks aren’t ideal for beginners because they’re highly prone to dramatic fluctuations in water parameters. So, newcomers might do well to split the difference by choosing species suited to tanks somewhere in the range of 30 to 75 gallons (give or take).

5) Low “sticker shock”

I’m not suggesting that hobby newcomers can’t afford rare, expensive fish, just that they may want to keep their fishy investment on the lower side while they get the hang of the hobby. It’s never fun to lose a fish, but it stings all the more if the specimen happened to cost you hundreds of dollars.

So, which fish fit the bill?

Again, opinions will vary on exactly which species are best for beginners, but here (in no particular order) are some examples of fish that, based on my experience, are reasonably bulletproof and satisfy all or most of the conditions listed above:

  • Many of the Pomacentrus, Chrysiptera, and Chromis spp. damsels
  • Various Amphiprion spp. clownfishes (e.g., A. ocellaris)
  • Various smaller hawkfishes (e.g., Cirrhitichthys falco—my favorite of the bunch)
  • Many cardinalfishes (e.g., captive-bred Banggai cardinals, Pterapogon kauderni)
  • Various firefishes (e.g., Nemateleotris decora and N. magnifica)
  • Certain Pseudocheilinus spp. wrasses (e.g., the sixline wrasse, P. hexataenia—though can be scrappy toward shy, passive tankmates)
  • Various Elacatinus and Amblyeleotris spp. gobies (e.g., E. oceanops and A. wheeleri)

Of course, this list just scratches the surface. If you have a favorite beginner fish to add, please share it in the comment section below.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Paul Baldassano says

    It seems that the larger the mouth of a fish, the easier it would be to keep. I realize this sounds weird but fish with tiny mouths are all specialized feeders requiring them to be fed tiny pieces of food multiple times a day. Fish such as mandarins, copperband butterflies, pipefish etc. fit that specialized feeder bill. Where as fish such as cardinals, gobies, hawkfish, clowns, triggers etc have relatively large mouths (sort of like a girl I used to date) so they can eat large bites of food that will last them all day or a few days. Many of the larger mouth fishes can also be fed a wider range of foods. Just my opinion of course but I too have a big mouth and will eat just about anything.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      I’m with you, Paul. Not only do I have a big mouth and eat just about anything placed in front of me, but I also do so multiple times a day. So I guess I’m sort of a cross between a mandarin and a trigger.
      On a completely unrelated note, I can’t seem to keep my weight down. Weird!

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