Marine fish are among the top 10 saltwater aquarium fishes, most colorful and beautiful creatures in the hobby, and with hundreds of species to choose from, how do you decide which to keep?

In this guide, we introduce ten of the best top saltwater aquarium fishes for beginners. But before you rush out to your local fish store, there are a few criteria that you should apply when choosing your fish.

Price

Marine fish are notoriously expensive to buy, depending on the species. So, when you’re new to the hobby, price is an important consideration.

It’s better to start by keeping a few relatively inexpensive fish. When you’re more experienced in caring for marines, you can spend a little more if you want to.

Hardy Species

Caring for saltwater aquarium fish is notoriously challenging. Many are highly sensitive to water quality and don’t tolerate changes in conditions well. Others are fussy feeders that can be extremely challenging to cater to.

So, look for fish that are undemanding, hardy, and easy to keep.

Size

Most newbies to the hobby start with a small tank, often up to 100 gallons in volume. Unfortunately, many of the most popular saltwater fish will outgrow an average-sized tank. So, be sure to research the species you’re considering to determine what size the fish will attain when fully grown.

Behavior and Compatibility

Finally, you need to take into account the compatibility of the fish species you plan to keep.

Not all species are suitable for life in a community setup, being too aggressive, predatory, or territorial. Some fish species are not reef-safe because they feed on or destroy corals. You also need to consider where each species likes to swim in the water column. To avoid overcrowding in particular areas of the tank, and maintain harmony, choose a mixture of fish that inhabit the bottom, midwater, and upper levels.

The Top 10 Saltwater Aquarium Fish

Bearing in mind the above criteria, here are our top 10 saltwater aquarium fishes:

1. Common Clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris)

The Common Clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris), also known as the false percula clownfish.
  • Size: 3 to 4 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Tank size: 20 gallons
  • Reef-safe: Yes

Clownfish are the “Nemo” of the hobby! These brightly-colored little fish do best when kept with anemones, nestling among the anemone’s stinging tentacles and feeding it with morsels of food in exchange for protection.

However, Common Clownfish will also do fine in a fish-only community tank with plenty of rocky hiding places in which to shelter.

2. Flame Angelfish (Centropyge loriculus)

Flame Angelfish (Centropyge loriculus), also known as the flame angel, flaming angelfish and Japanese pygmy angelfish.
  • Size: 3 to 4 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful, sometimes territorial
  • Tank size: 20+ gallons
  • Reef-safe: Somewhat

Flame Angelfish are stunningly beautiful fish that make an excellent choice for beginners. The fish feed primarily on algae, vegetarian flake, small invertebrates, and frozen meaty protein.

Introduce these fish to a fully-cycled tank or established aquarium for best results.

3. Yellow Tang (Zebrasoma flavescens)

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The Yellow Tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), also known as the Yellow Hawaiian Tang is one of the most popular marine aquarium fish.
  • Size: Up to 8 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Tank size: 55 gallons
  • Reef-safe: Yes

Yellow Tangs are vibrant, lemon-yellow vegetarians that browse on algae. You can keep groups of juvenile Tangs that form a school as the fish mature.

These beautiful saltwater fishes are hardy and relatively easy to keep as community members with other non-aggressive species.

4. Kole Tang (Ctenochaetus strigosus)

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The Kole Tang (Ctenochaetus strigosus), also known as spotted surgeonfish, goldring surgeonfish or yellow-eyed tang is endemic to Oceana.
  • Size: Up to 7 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Tank size: 70 gallons
  • Reef-safe: Yes

Kole Tangs are not only gorgeous to look at, but they’re a useful addition to community reef tanks with algae problems. The fish graze on a wide range of algae and tiny other surface coating creatures, keeping your tank looking immaculate.

5. Chalk Bass (Serranus tortugarum)

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The Chalk Bass (Serranus tortugarum), native to the western Atlantic Ocean.
  • Size: 2 to 3 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Tank size: 10 gallons
  • Reef-safe: Yes

Chalk Bass are small, peaceful fish that feed on zooplankton. These hardy fish are perfect for nano-reef setups, thriving in small schools, and getting along with other amenable species.

The Chalk Bass’ subtle coloration and healthy wild North American Atlantic population make them readily available and inexpensive.

6. Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto)

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The Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto), also known as the fairy basslet is native to the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Size: Up to 3 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful, territorial
  • Tank size: 20 gallons
  • Reef-safe: Yes

Royal Gramma are delightful, brilliantly colored Caribbean Basslets that are perennial favorites in the hobby, being inexpensive, easy to feed, and pretty hardy.

Although peaceful in a community setting, Royal Grammas don’t get along with their own kind and should be kept singly in a tank that has a large cave the fish can claim as their territory.

7. Fire Goby (Nemateleotris magnifica)

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The Fire Goby (Nemateleotris magnifica) is also known as magnificent fire fish, fire dartfish, or red fire goby is native to the Indian and Pacific oceans.
  • Size: Up to 3 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Tank size: 20 gallons
  • Reef-safe: Yes

The Fire Goby is a striking, unusual fish that’s a good choice for newbies. In nature, the fish eat floating plankton and small crustaceans, but in captivity, they will accept flake food, brine shrimp, and frozen foods, too.

Although not territorial, the Fire Goby does need a cave to call its own to feel safe and secure in a community setup.

8. Threadfin Butterfly Fish (Chaetodon auriga)

Top 10 Saltwater Aquarium Fishes
The Threadfin Butterfly Fish (Chaetodon auriga) is also known as the diagonal butterflyfish and whip butterfly fish, native to Indo-Pacific.
  • Size: Up to 8 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Tank size: 70 gallons
  • Reef-safe: No

Threadfin Butterflyfish feed on algae, polyps, corals, and tiny anemones, so they’re not suitable for life in a reef tank. However, these fish are peaceful and non-territorial, and their presence often gives shy tank mates the confidence to come out into the open.

9. Blue Reef Chromis (Chromis cyaneus)

The Blue Reef Chromis (Chromis cyaneus), an active and peaceful aquarium fish native to the Atlantic and Caribbean.
  • Size: 4 to 5 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful, schooling
  • Tank size: 30 gallons
  • Reef-safe: Yes

Blue Reef Chromis are a species of Caribbean damselfish that are best kept in schools of up to six individuals. These peaceful creatures feed on zooplankton, hanging out in the mid to upper regions of the water column.

These fish are hardy, relatively inexpensive, and easy to care for, and their gorgeous electric blue color is a real head-turner in a reef tank of modest size.

10. Black Cap Basslet (Gramma melacara)

The Black Cap Basslet (Gramma melacara), also kown as blackcap gramma is native to the tropical western Atlantic Ocean.
  • Size: 3 to 4 inches
  • Temperament: Peaceful, territorial
  • Tank size: 30 gallons
  • Reef-safe: Yes

Black Cap Basslets are related to the Royal Gramma, and their colors are no less glamorous and eye catching! Since these fish are found in deeper waters than their Royal Gramma cousins, they are slightly more expensive.

These fish cannot be kept with others of their own species, although they do make lovely community fish. Provide a cave that the Black Cap Basslet can make its own, and you will have a happy fish!

Final Thoughts

Saltwater aquarium fish can be challenging to keep but their colors and presence in the tank are well worth the effort.

We hope you enjoyed our guide to our top ten saltwater aquarium fishes and found inspiration here for your marine or reef aquarium. If you did, please share!