Aquarium & Tropical Fish Site

Selecting Saltwater Fish
Saltwater fishkeepers must be extremely careful and rational when buying their beauties!

 Age of Aquariums > Aquarium Articles


The first thing you need to be aware of is cyanide. Cyanide is a drug which is commonly used to catch saltwater fish in different parts of the world. Cyanide caught fish rarely survive longer than a few weeks. Although they seem to be in perfect health at the pet shop, within a few weeks they will begin to loose weight and eventually just seem to wither away. You should avoid buying fish from any dealer you do not trust. Ideally your dealer should have a sign posted which says that they only sell fish which are hand-caught, meaning without drugs. Or maybe they will advertise that they are members of the AMDA or another organization which supports selling only captive raised fish and hand caught fish.

Assuming that you are buying a fish which has been hand caught and handled properly, here are a few things to look for. First and most important, the fish should be eating at the pet shop. If the fish is not eating at the shop, there is no reason to think that it will eat for you. Ask the pet shop employee to feed the fish and watch very closely as it eats, paying attention to the following aspects:

  •  Does the fish have any white spots on it?
  •  Does the fish have any redness or other visible sores?
  •  Does the fish seem to be "scratching" on the substrate or decorations?
  •  Is the fish breathing heavily?
  •  Does the mouth of the fish have any visible damage?
  •  Are the fins ripped or torn in any way?
  •  Does the fish have either of its pectoral fins clamped against the body, refusing to use the fin to swim?
  •  Are the eyes cloudy or hazy?
  •  Is the fish thin and skinny, as if it has not been fed in weeks?
  •  Is the stomach of the fish swollen? Are there any body protrusions?
  •  Is there anything at all about the fish that makes you feel uncomfortable?
  • If you answered YES to even 1 of the questions above, do not buy the fish! I typically have to look at 10 to 20 fish before I will find one which I feel is healthy enough to deserve my money. Probably 1/4 of the fish I see are already so sick they will die in days. Another 1/4 are not eating. This means that of all the fish I see in the pet store, only 1/2 of them do I even "put to the test", so to speak. You will want to be extremely observant and if you have a gut feeling, go with it.

    You should also be aware that there are many fish for sale, which are perfectly healthy, that can not live in captivity. These fish will not live due to dietary reasons. We are simply unable to provide an adequate substitute for their natural diets. Examples include most Butterfly's, some Angelfish, and many other fish. There are sites available which list fish you should avoid. I also have a "difficulty chart" which discusses most of the fish commonly available. I recommend that you learn as much as you can about the fish BEFORE you buy it. Especially go to message boards and chat rooms and ask other hobbyists about their experiences with a particular fish. Avoid buying a fish on impulse!

    After you have selected a fish you will need to have an employee "bag" the fish. This should be accomplished by gently herding the fish into a container of water and then submersing the container into a bag. Under NO situation should the fish be captured with a net. The only exception is for a venomous fish such as the Lionfish. Nets are very abrasive and can damage the skin and fins of the fish. The use of nets on saltwater fish is probably responsible for 1/2 of the skin diseases experienced by hobbyists in the quarantine tank. I worked at a pet shop for 3 years and never once used a net. We sold upwards of 150 saltwater fish a week. After the fish is bagged, it should be put into a brown paper bag immediately. If you need to do further shopping, take the fish up to the counter to be put in a brown paper bag. In reality, you should get the fish home as soon as possible and not have the fish bagged until you are ready to walk out the door.

    My quick list of fish to avoid until you are experienced and knowledgeable: Copperband Butterfly, Mandarin Goby, Scooter Blenny, Rock Beauty Angel, Regal Angel, Green Chromis, Potters Angel, Achilles Tang, Royal Gramma, Bicolor Angel.

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