How to Prevent Fish from Stealing Coral Food

Brain coral with feeding tentacles out at night

Brain coral with feeding tentacles out at night

When it comes to acquiring food, fish will take the path of least resistance. And one of the best ways for a fish to score an easy meal is to snatch morsels away from their glacially slow-moving invertebrate tankmates. Heck, it’s practically like taking candy from a baby, except babies usually cry a lot louder when they’re robbed of treats.

For hobbyists who keep corals or other invertebrates with a high demand for regular targeted feeding—e.g., many LPS corals and anemones—such food thievery can be a genuinely aggravating issue. The good news is, using one or more of the following techniques, it’s often possible to eliminate, or at least reduce, this bad behavior:

Distract the culprits

You may be able to buy your coral a few precious moments at mealtimes by first delivering food to the fish in another part of the tank and then quickly target feeding the coral. Of course, this is only effective if the fish haven’t already learned to identify the coral in question as a source of easy victuals. In that case, they’ll likely just gobble up their own food and then proceed to shake down the coral anyway.

Feed the coral at night

Feeding corals after dark offers a couple advantages. One is that many corals naturally feed at night and, thus, typically extend their feeding tentacles at that time. Another is that many fish will go right into their favorite nighttime resting spot after lights out and are less focused on finding food. These circumstances facilitate easier coral feeding and greatly reduce the likelihood of thievery.

Tempt the coral first

Speaking of those feeding tentacles, there’s an easy way to encourage them to emerge whenever you’re ready to feed the coral—even in broad daylight. Just gently squirt a small amount of the water used to thaw or rinse the food onto or upcurrent of the coral and wait a few moments. After the coral detects the chemical signature of food in the water, it should go into feeding mode and extend its tentacles. Then you can go ahead and target feed it.

This technique doesn’t guarantee that fish won’t still try to steal the food, but being physiologically poised to actively feed when a meal is delivered gives the coral at least a fighting chance of holding on to its rations.

Isolate the victim

If you’re dealing with a really persistent piscine coral food thief, your best bet is to create some sort of physical barrier between the coral and would-be burglar at mealtimes. For example, in the past, I used to cover my open brain coral with the top third of a three-liter plastic soda bottle at feeding times. With this makeshift enclosure, I could feed the coral via turkey baster through the opening at the top while keeping my greedy percula clownfish completely at bay. Once the coral finished feeding, I just removed the bottle top, dried it off, and put it away until the next feeding. Another popular choice is to use one of those plastic mesh baskets that berries are packaged in at the supermarket.

Basically, any similar object will suffice as long as it’s made of aquarium-safe material, allows water to flow through, provides some sort of easy access for food delivery, and excludes fish. Just make sure the enclosure is sized such that it can be put in place and removed without contacting or damaging the coral.

What’s your trick?
So, fellow salties, how have you overcome the issue of fish stealing coral food? Let us know 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. don smith says

    I do the distract the culprit trick I try to get my fishes to eat on the other side of the tank then feed my corals and my Mandarin goby before the fish come and get it all

  2. Thank you for the article. These techniques will not only get your corals plumper but will lower your fishes anxiety. I think its pretty safe to say most of us have chased our clown fish with a turkey baster.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      I’m ashamed to say I’ve also found myself yelling at my clownfish through the tank glass for this type of behavior. I’m not sure what I expect to achieve, but it makes me feel better! Thanks Vic!

  3. Hi
    I use a 2L soda bottle with the bottom cut off, I drilled a hole in the screw on cap to insert a syringe or turkey baster. I draw the food into syringe stick it into the screw on cap and position the cut off bottle over the coral I want to feed. I slowly insert the food from the syringe into the confined space of the bottle and the coral can then feed without having its food snatch away by the fish. This way I don’t need distract the fish with extra food. If I feed pellet food I just remove the screw on cap and drop the pellets into the bottle positioned over the coral.

  4. I do use the feed at night or early morning trick but most recently began using a long clear tube. The sinking pellets go right down and I hold tube in place until the pellet is gone. Thanks for all the info Saltwater Smarts

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