You Can Help Discourage the Sale of Hard-to-Keep Marine Species

The Moorish Idol (Zanclus cornutus) is notoriously hard to feed and has a high mortality rate in home aquaria

The Moorish Idol (Zanclus cornutus) is notoriously hard to feed and has a high mortality rate in home aquaria

Regular Saltwater Smarts readers might wonder why we often post profiles of fish or invertebrates that are very difficult if not impossible to keep in home aquariums. After all, if we want to discourage you from buying these animals, why on earth do we go to all the trouble of describing them?

Well, the answer is simple: because you’re going to encounter them for sale on the marine aquarium market anyway. One of our biggest frustrations as long-time hobbyists is the fact that, for whatever reason, many dealers out there continue to trade in species that have no business in hobbyists’ tanks. It’s wise to be armed with information about these animals so you’re in a better position to make responsible purchases.

If you want to help discourage the sale of off-limits livestock, here are some simple steps you can take:

Educate yourself

In order to recognize animals that don’t belong in the aquarium trade, it helps to do some research on the various species you’re apt to come across when shopping at your LFS or online. That way, you’ll know what to buy and what to avoid so you don’t unwittingly support unsustainable practices with your dollars.

The various species profiles posted here at Saltwater Smarts (which are increasing all the time) are a good research starting point. I’m also a big fan of Scott Michaels’ Marine Fishes: 500+ Essential-to-Know Aquarium Species (TFH Publications, 2001). This book has more than a few years behind it now, but it’s still very helpful in determining a species’ aquarium suitability and reef-friendliness. Plus, it’s small enough to fit right in your pocket or purse, so you can easily take it with you to your LFS when you’re ready to shop.

An excellent online source for helpful information on fish and invertebrate species is Each profile on this site includes a designation of the animal’s care level—e.g., easy, moderate, difficult, expert only, etc.—which will help you determine whether it’s a good choice for you or not.

Don’t try to “save” them

Experienced marine aquarium hobbyists sometimes make the blunder of purchasing what is essentially a doomed specimen at their LFS because they figure it will at least have a fighting chance under their skilled care. Don’t do this! While it may seem noble to take on a hopeless case, what you’re really doing is rewarding the dealer with a successful financial transaction. If one specimen sells, he or she may just be inclined to bring in another.

Shop where suitable species are sold

Of course, the most significant thing you can do to discourage the sale of hard-to-keep livestock is to vote with your feet and pocketbook. That is, walk (or click) out of stores that regularly trade in off-limits species and support only those that make a reasonable effort to avoid them—or at least provide appropriate warnings with respect to their demanding nature.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that experiences with a given species—or individuals within a particular species—can vary considerably, so there isn’t necessarily going to be universal agreement on which species should be avoided. Plus, it’s not unheard of for dealers to receive hard-to-keep species from wholesalers as “substitutions” for animals they actually ordered. Thus, even very conscientious dealers may have what you or I might consider unsuitable animals in their sales tanks from time to time. So we have to be reasonable about this issue.

Share your concerns with the staff/manager

For many people, shopping elsewhere (at least as far as brick-and-mortar stores are concerned) may not be a viable option, as there may be no other stores within reasonable proximity. If that’s the case, or if the shop is otherwise pretty decent but perhaps sells a few dubious species, it might be worth a conversation with the dealer to express your concerns—ideally without being rude or confrontational, which is always counterproductive. You might just find that the dealer appreciates your candor. If face-to-face conversation makes you uncomfortable, a constructively worded letter or email might be a good alternative.

What’s your suggestion?
So, fellow salties, what do you do when you visit an LFS and see fish or invertebrates that aren’t suited to home aquariums on display? Let us know in the comment section below.

Photo credit: Nathan Rupert


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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. First off, yes, but then no. As a aquarist who’s made a name for himself by, among other things, finding replicable success and new husbandry techniques for challenging species, I must protest the oversimplification of these issues.

    The first part I have an issue with is the notion of “off-limits” livestock. There is no such thing, at least, not unless it is actually illegal to commercially trade in. So I’d drop the phrase completely.

    Second, and perhaps most importantly, is a historical perspective. Decades ago, oh, let’s say Acropora corals and Tridacna clams, would’ve been considered “doomed to die”. But now keeping them and propagating them is the norm. They might have well belonged on the average “unsuitable for captivity” list of 20 years ago. What changed?

    Well, we unlocked the secrets. Or more specifically, a few aquarists along the way really broke new ground, passed along what worked, and others tried it. Some failed, others succeeded, information was shared, and collectively we all moved forward.

    The line of thinking demonstrated here is the step that’s one away from a “ban”, and we see far too much talk about banning this that and the other thing these days. Difficult species are NOT prevalent in the trade in the US…in fact they can be extremely difficult to locate and obtain. Certainly, there are, for example, routinely available Moorish Idols, but the volume that come through is not shocking or alarming. These days, we’re doing far better with Zanclus than we used to because people aren’t given up; their secrets ARE slowly being unlocked and with it comes better supportive products for their care and husbandry. We have not learned everything there is to learn about a Moorish Idol, and with some persistence, perhaps this example species might one day not be as challenging or intimidating as it is today.

    If Oxymonacanthus longirostris had been “off-limits”, I would have never found success breeding and rearing the species. This “doomed to die” species now has new found hope. Mandarins? Well, I still shudder at the day-in-day-out conventional wisdom being proposed by the average forum hobbyist, meanwhile I’ve developed and published a fool proof methodology to properly train them onto prepared foods, making their husbandry significantly easier. Nevermind the breakthroughs in breeding with Synchiropus along the way.

    It is absolutely right and appropriate to continue to share information about the “difficult” species that do exist..and there are many. But should they be “off-limits”? No. I wholeheartedly agree that the vast majority of aquarists out there have no business keeping many of the species available because they are simply not ready – they lack the broad knowledge and the instincts that can only come from experience.

    But when someone like me has a protocol in waiting and is eager to do some research with inexpensive coralivorous Chaetodontids, I should be able to obtain them through special request. The simple fact that I’ve had feelers on the ground for half a year and have no fish to show for it, is proof that the problem of difficult fish in the trade is nowhere close to where it was 20 years ago.

    Should a shop sell, for example, Moorish Idols? I have no qualms about it and we must remember, if the shop is bringing it in and no on buys it, the shop isn’t going to be eager to bring in the next one. A shop offering difficult or challenging livestock for sale doesn’t make the shop a bad shop, and doesn’t automatically mean you should take your business elsewhere. It just means that a) the shop should sell such a fish with full disclosure and b) the aquarist has the perennial responsibility to know what they’re buying, and to frankly self-assess their abilities and resources, before making a purchase.

    And it’s that last part, the personal responsibility, that I find lacking, more so than any vendor’s willingness to make available a challenging animal. If these animals are no longer available, then pretty much the advancement of our hobby’s husbandry prowess stops along with it.

    • Hello, Matt, and thanks for sharing these excellent insights. Just a few points I would make in response:

      1) We try to write all of our posts with the beginner to middling hobbyist in mind. I don’t doubt for a moment that expert hobbyists, such as yourself, will continue to make important strides forward with respect to the husbandry of once-thought-impossible-to-keep species. However, most people visiting a local fish store to make a purchase don’t fall into that category and are best advised to avoid these animals because, as you state, “…the vast majority of aquarists out there have no business keeping many of the species available because they are simply not ready–they lack the broad knowledge and the instincts that can only come from experience.”

      2) With respect to my use of the term “off-limits,” I’m suggesting that average hobbyists should personally deem them off-limits (in the same manner that someone attempting to lose weight might want to deem certain “trigger foods” off-limits)–not that they are or should be illegal. I think most of our readers are sophisticated enough to appreciate the nuance.

      3) With respect to the line of thinking conveyed in the post being one step away from a ban, I would disagree wholeheartedly. I’m advocating personal and industry action/responsibility here, not legislation (as a free-market libertarian, I’m certainly no proponent of government intervention in the marketplace). Trouble is, there are plenty of people out there who would like to see bans imposed on our hobby, and we only give them ammunition when we buy livestock that is doomed to die without expert care (or sometimes even with it).

      4) You mention that people who have a protocol in place and are eager to do research on a given species ought to have the ability to obtain it by special request. That’s an excellent point and one I should have made in the post. I might also add that better point-of-purchase education on various species’ requirements (whether by signage, labeling, handouts, or whatever) could go a long way toward addressing this issue.

      5) I tried to make the point that I’m not indicting all stores that carry hard-to-keep species–though I probably should have done so more emphatically.

      I hope these points clarify what I was driving at a bit better, and thanks again for your thoughtful comments. They are truly appreciated.

  2. Paul Baldassano says

    As to a fish such a Moorish Idol, I have been keeping them for almost 40 years because for some reason they were one of the first fish available and I had them in the 70s. I couldn’t keep them then and I can’t keep them now although I have spent quite a bit of time with them underwater in Tahiti. I did learn what they eat and I can replicate their sponge diet but the five years I kept the last one was a failure because a fish such as that should probably live at least 15 years. When the hobby started in the States in 1971 the store I used to go to even sold new born sea turtles. There was no mention that they get to 400lbs.

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