Buying Marine Fish and Inverts: LFS vs. Online

Sale tanks at Coral Reef in Perrysburg, OH

Sale tanks at Coral Reef in Perrysburg, OH

Once a new saltwater aquarium is up and running, fully cycled, and ready to receive fish and/or invertebrates, the hobbyist has the choice of buying livestock from a local fish store (LFS) or from various online sources. Both options are perfectly viable, but one choice or the other may be a better fit for you, depending on a variety of factors.

Let’s look at some of the advantages and limitations of each livestock source to give you a sense of what to expect when shopping either venue and to help streamline your decision-making process.

LFS advantages

When buying specimens from your LFS, you can always see what you’re getting before making a commitment. You’ll know exactly how large the specimen is, and there’ll be no surprises when it comes to its color and pattern. This last point might be important when buying a species known to exhibit considerable color/pattern variability, such as the coral beauty angelfish.

You’ll also be able to give the specimen a careful firsthand assessment for physical or behavioral signs of disease, injury, or malnourishment, and you’ll have the opportunity to ask the dealer to feed the specimen while you’re there to ensure that it’s eating properly.

Yet another advantage of shopping at your LFS is that doing so allows you to build a personal, one-on-one relationship with the dealer, which may prove to be very beneficial down the road when you need a little expert advice or “hand holding” to get through a problem or when you need a special accommodation, such as putting a desired specimen on hold while you give the purchase more thought.

LFS limitations

Shopping your LFS has its limitations, as well. Among them:

  • You’re limited to what’s in the sales tanks unless you place a special order, which can make it difficult to fill that specialized stocking list without making substitutions.
  • You’re subject to sales pressure and potentially more prone to making impulse purchases.
  • You’re limited to shopping during store hours, which may or may not coincide with your schedule.

Online advantages

When shopping online, you have access to a world of livestock vendors right at your fingertips, which is especially helpful to hobbyists who may not live in close proximity to a brick-and-mortar saltwater aquarium store. That means if one site doesn’t have a species you’re after, you can always try another, making it easier to stick with a specialized stocking plan without making substitutions—for example, if you’re trying to create a particular marine biotope.

Also, since you’re shopping via computer from the comfort of home, there’s no salesperson looking over your shoulder and less self-imposed pressure to make a purchase. (“I’ve come all this way, so I should probably buy something!”) What’s more, there are no store hours to worry about, so you can shop whenever it’s convenient for you.

Online limitations

Potential drawbacks to buying specimens online include:


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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. Matt Bowers (Muttley000) says

    I prefer to see the specimens so I have avoided the on line dealers thus far. There are a few who have a reputation I would trust, but the need to see a fish eating and behaving normally has been too much for me to get over!

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      I can relate completely, Matt. I’ve had some rough experiences with hunger-striking specimens over the years, so seeing them eat is of utmost importance to me now.


    • Chris Aldrich says

      I agree, Matt. It’s a tough hurdle to overcome (and in the end, does it need to be?).

      That said, I did bite the bullet while stocking my Carib biotope, as the less common species simply aren’t available in stores. In fact, I know very few people even keep a few of the species I have in my tank. Thankfully I was able to strike up a great relationship directly with a collector which I talked more about below in my response to Andy’s comment.

  2. Andy Henson says

    All my fish I prefer to get at a LFS so I can see it, coral I have bought frag packs online both from commercial vendors and hobbyists, and from LFS. When buying online though I always go with the WYSIWYG so I can see the exact frags I’m getting.

    • Chris Aldrich says

      Coral is definitely easier to purchase online, Andy. You are very right there!

      In terms of fish, I can agree with preferring to see their behavior in person before purchase. I do have a collector I buy my Carib species from site unseen (or with a quick photo). But we have a great relationship so I know when I tell them what I want, I will get just that. They also ensure they are eating and looking healthy before they ship them my way. I remember one instance they held a fish for an extra two weeks until they were comfortable it was eating properly and ready for the voyage.

  3. Personally I haven’t bought any live animals online, and am still at the planning stage of a salt watter aquarium. I generally go into any purchase knowing what I want, and prefer local shops for the above reasons, most importantly building a relationship so I have someone to turn to if things go wrong. If the local store doesn’t have what I want, then I would turn to online.

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