Discount Marine Fish Aren’t Always Such a Bargain!

Copperband butterflyfish and blue green reef chromis in a display aquarium at a LFS

Copperband butterflyfish and blue green reef chromis in a display aquarium at a LFS

There’s no question that many of the marine fish we keep in our aquariums come with a pretty hefty price tag. Even relatively inexpensive “bread-and-butter” species can cause a surprising degree of sticker shock compared to their freshwater counterparts. So, it’s simply prudent to shop around for the best possible price one can find on any given fish, right?

While that’s true enough within certain parameters—and there are sometimes legitimate bargains to be had out there—it’s important to keep in mind that low-cost fish aren’t always as great a deal as advertised. Here are just a few reasons:

Collection locale counts

Some fish that are popular among hobbyists have a relatively extensive range and are collected in different locales throughout that range. Naturally, the collection, holding, and shipping practices prevalent in any given locale will have a significant impact on the quality and price of specimens originating there.

The oft-cited example of this is the copperband butterflyfish (Chelmon rostratus), which is collected in the Philippines and Indonesia, where cyanide collection and other sketchy practices still go on, as well as in Australia, where collection practices are more carefully regulated. Perhaps not surprisingly, Aussie specimens tend to be hardier and have a better shot at survival than those hailing from the Philippines or Indonesia. Of course, they also come with a commensurately high price. Is it worth paying extra for these specimens? I’d say absolutely yes given the fact that copperbands can be challenging to keep under the best of conditions, let alone when their health is already compromised.

Cheap fish are often undersized

The price of a given fish species often varies according to size. But in some cases, the cheapest individuals you might come across are very small juveniles, which tend to be more delicate than adults (and hence more likely to succumb eventually to the rigors of collection, transport, and repeated re-acclimation) and have less nutritional reserve to call upon as they sort out what’s edible and what isn’t in the aquarium environment.

Sometimes cost is a reflection of care and quality

As I pointed out earlier, not all discount prices on marine fish are suspect. Plenty of retailers offer sales on specimens from time to time. What you have to be wary of is the retailer—let’s say, just for the sake of illustration, that he calls himself “Crazy Caribbean Chris”—who always offers bargain-basement prices on fish that routinely sell for a higher price elsewhere (and, ironically, specializes in fish from the Indo-Pacific region). Providing proper care for fish and other marine livestock prior to sale requires a certain unavoidable allocation of labor and resources on the retailer’s part, so you have to wonder whether those bargain-basement prices are actually a reflection of basement-level care.

Also, you should be more than a little concerned about “Crazy Caribbean Chris’s” livestock sources and what sort of practices they employ that allow them to supply fish at such low prices!

A dead fish is no deal!

The bottom line is, a stressed, weakened fish that survives only a short time in your aquarium is a bad bargain no matter what the price. While I would never say “Money is no object” when it comes to buying marine fish, I might argue that “Money shouldn’t be the deciding factor.” (You should start with our Guide to Choosing Healthy Saltwater Fish at your LFS instead.)


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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. Jeremy Gosnell says

    Dead on Jeff (no pun intended.) I agree wholeheartedly and this is perhaps a major set-back to new marine aquarists. It’s rare that new aquarists starting out calculate the cost of lost livestock into their overall aquarium budget, but I would assume for many it exceeds the cost of equipment, etc. If an outlet has put time into establishing good relations with credible exporters, and cares for their fish including a quarantine period, treatment for possible parasites, etc – you are simply going to pay more for the fish. Often small town pet shops, and other far less than perfect outlets run by the seat of their pants. There was a vendor not far from me that sold any of his marine fish for $ 40. He went out of business a long time ago, and needless to say if not quarantined, the parasites on those $ 40 dollar fish did $ 4,000+ worth of damage depending on what other species you had occupying your tank.

  2. Paul Baldassano says

    You can sometimes get good bargains for fish as I often do. Once in a while a store just gets in way to many of a particular fish than he can handle so he wants to move them fast. A place near me imports his own fish and that happens there all the time. I will see 100 tiny copperbands in a tank and he can’t fit them all so they go for maybe $10.00 each which is very cheap for copperbands. Of course you have to know what you are doing or you could end up with $10.00 worth of dead copperband. The 3 year old copperband I have now I got like that.

  3. There’s a lot to be said about the shop you buy your fish from. I make sure I’m familiar with their acclimation practices as well as quarantine system and procedure. This is often forgotten when buying coral which like fish carry tons of pests and tank destroyers. Let the buyer beware

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