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Related Articles: Avoiding Bad Choices: Saltwater Animals That Are Commonly Offered in the Trade That Shouldn't Be, and Suggested Alternatives, by Bob Fenner,  Stocking,

/The Conscientious Reef Aquarist Series:

Organism Selection for the Saltwater Aquarist, or

How to Go About Planning & Picking Out Marine Livestock

With a Heavy Emphasis on Reef Systems, pt. 2

Part 1, Part 3

Bob Fenner

Puffers, need space, may well chew...

Toxic Life:

Most Boxfishes and Trunkfishes (Family Ostraciidae) (Cowfish, Lactoria cornuta; female and male Blue Boxfish, Ostracion meleagris) can release toxic materials into the water should they "become upset"

As can Soapfishes (Family Grammistidae)(Grammistes sexlineatus), and many Sea Cucumbers (Class Holothuroidea)( the "Australian" Sea Apple, Paracucumaria tricolor) and more can toxify and kill off a sizable systems occupants, should they become "disturbed" or die and dissolve. 

On the other hand, I still endorse the sale of venomous fishes like the Scorpaenids (Lions, Stonefish)( a Black Pterois volitans Lionfish at right; below the Bearded Scorpionfish, Scorpaenopsis barbatus; a Leaf fish, Taenionotus triacanthus), and plotosid catfishes (Plotosus lineatus), 

And many Tangs (e.g. Naso lituratus;), and their relatives, the Rabbitfishes (family Siganidae)( the Stellate Rabbitfish, Siganus stellatus) are dangerously spiny AND venomous if mishandled. Be careful when handling these!). 

Though personally, I do wish the trade would stop carrying the Blue-Ringed Octopus (Haplochalaena maculosa and others) and the species of Cone Snails (Conus) that are deadly venomous to unwary and unaware humans.

Selecting Good Specimens:

After determining which species of what's available are compatible and desirable, what can you do to insure you're getting the "pick of the litter" in choosing through them at your dealers? Actually, quite a bit. Before launching into the particulars of how to go about this I'd like to reinforce the notion of who you, the consumer, is in this curious and crucial role. You're the one "with the gold"; as in the Golden Rule. At least in this version, you're the one who makes the rules. By casting your vote, buying or not, you drive and direct financial markets; including pet-fish ones. Don't ever forget this. You want value for your money? Demand it with your dollars and your feet. Don't purchase things, including life, from places you do not endorse; better still, walk on out of them. Believe me; this is how bad situations are best rectified.

Right Size: Mainly Wrasse Examples

For all species and specimens for you to consider there is a "too small, too large, and right about the right range" of sizes. Think of the Wrasses, and know that their family name, Labridae is derived from the Greek "labros", meaning "greedy". When little, they're oh so cute, but many get to be big, some very quickly, often by eating their tankmates. Here's an attractive juvenile Napoleon or Humphead Wrasse ( Cheilinus undulatus)(1) of about a foot length. Unfortunately it grows into a monster of some 2.5 meters.

I remember working for a wholesaler of marines in California in the sixties who complained that the Cuban Hogs (Bodianus pulchellus) sent to us were too small (under two inches). Sure enough, next shipment they came one to the box at about ¾ of a foot total length. 

If you had to have a Hog in the genus Bodianus, for your reef tank you'd be much better off with a smaller member, such as Bodianus bimaculatus (the Two-Spot at 9cm max.), or the Lyretail (Bodianus anthioides).

Better still, for reef aquarists who want even safer, more compatible labrids, look to the Fairy Wrasses (Cirrhilabrus spp.)(C. jordani shown ), the smaller "Lined Wrasses" Pseudocheilinus, Flashers (genus Paracheilinus)(e.g. the Filament Fin, P. filamentosus), 

Or for folks who like a real challenge, the Leopard Wrasses (genus Macropharyngodon)(shown male M. meleagris, the Guinea Fowl Leopard Wrasse), or the sand-dwelling Pencil Wrasses of the genus Pseudojuloides.(shown is a male P. cerasinus). Among others, these stay relatively small, don't hassle invertebrates and are both beautiful and interesting behaviorally.

"Ideal" size for specimens to be shipped   12/31/11
Hi Bob and Crew,
I'm ordering fish from Liveaquaria. Are medium specimens better able to handle the stresses of shipping (more hardy) than small specimens or is it about the same? For instance, their small Picasso Triggers are 1" to 2" while their medium Picassos are 2" to 3". Their small Papuan Toby Puffers are 1.5" to 2" while their medium size is 2" to 3". Also, is there a difference in hardiness of specimens from Sumatra or Indonesia?
<Good questions... There IS a definite difference in incidental mortality per species, per size range... in the case of Rhinecanthus triggers, the second range you mention is best... and Canthigaster spp. the first range is better... Larger sizes of both (and most all organisms) being worse...
Mmm, and your last query... Sumatra is part of Indonesia.
Bob Fenner>
Re: "Ideal" size for specimens to be shipped   12/31/11
Haha, I must've missed the day they covered Indonesia....or most geography, actually. Thanks for your quick reply.
<Welcome! Wish we were diving off the island right now! BobF>

Too puny and too big individuals of even the "right" species ship poorly and are much less likely to adapt to aquarium conditions. Juveniles can't go as long without feeding, and this is often a period of days to weeks from collection to the wholesaler that feeds (many don't) or your dealers. Large individuals tend to be "set in their ways" food and behavior-wise; what's more they are much more expensive to ship (Transport is often the single largest cost component of livestock dealing)

Series of Naso lituratus, too small (1 ½"), too big (about a foot), and right in range 3 ½-6".


Irrespective of where you stand on "the cyanide issue", whether it exists, how deleterious poison use is to the intended catch, the environment, fisher-folk and their communities, there is a direct correlation with "where" your livestock originates and its likelihood of survival and longevity. Certainly other factors are at least as important in contributing to loss of life and vitality; time on hand at collectors, "consolidators/shippers" to and through domestic-based wholesale facilities; lack of feeding in most of this transit; stresses of crowding, poor water quality; long airline hauling times; concurrent chemical and physical insults from same... all add up to the fact that livestock are better/best from closer, and more "controlled" areas. In particular I must still generally  vilify the industry's two major country-sources, the Philippine Islands and Indonesia as "B" sources of marines. Yes, there are a growing number of conscientious businesses there, eschewing the use of "economic poisons", but the other factors mentioned (airline delays, long haul times, lack of feeding, "burn" from overcrowding/too small a bag & water...) are still damning.

Look around; there are MANY alternative catch sites, and new ones every year, offering most of the key species at much better net landed prices (when you count in mortality) than Indonesia or the Philippines. Even if you don't believe you're implicitly fueling reef destruction, over-fishing and continuing impoverishment of indigenous peoples, the bottom line is the bottom line; fishes and invertebrates are better from elsewhere. ( Indonesia shirts ala Mike Goddard).  

Captive bred or latter derived in the way of asexually "reproduced" invertebrates (as in "fragmenting" SPS corals). Are these a better choice than "wild caught" or collected? Most of the times and in most ways, yes. This livestock is better conditioned, or better put (with apologies to Darwin and Wallace) "unnaturally selected", to put up with the vagaries of human confinement. Already accepting of prepared foods and water conditions, "man-made" or to-a-degree cultured stock in general is much hardier than that coming fresh from the reef. In the past, captive bred and reared fishes displayed a comparative loss of color, genetic integrity and vigor opposed to their wild conspecifics. Take a look now! They are much improved. 

A batch of tank bred and reared Amphiprion clarkii and Amphiprion ocellaris at right,  captive made Gobiosoma, captive bred and reared tridacnids at a wholesaler's below

Even marine algae are being cultured in commercial numbers for the ornamental aquatics trade: A wild shot of a brown algae, Dictyota,  a cultured green, Sea Lettuce, Ulva).

Obvious Signs of Damage & Disease:

Fish external parasites like Ich (Cryptocaryon irritans) and Velvet (Amylloodinium) are easy to spot, either by their spotty/dusty appearance, and/or the concurrent rapid breathing, hiding behavior they induce. Look especially to the organisms eyes, fin origins, and mouth for trouble signs ( a Kole, or Yellow-Eye Tang, Ctenochaetus strigosus, with an infected mouth; this fish is more than likely doomed). Red or white sores, swelling of any kind are a warning; the specimen may not be necessarily infected, but its capacity to ward off disease is impugned .

Both eyes should be clear and bright, neither sunken in or bulging and not scratched. Minor scratches from rough handling often solve themselves, but "pop-eye" (exophthalmia), or sunken eyes may signal internal infection and are serious matters that should disqualify a purchase. Depending on the variety of fish in question, torn or frayed fins may not be a big deal; infection is. Pay close attention for signs of infection at their bases. Mouths and gill spines are often damaged in the process of collecting and shipping. Look at enough clean, healthy specimens of the species until you know how these are supposed to appear. (extreme HLLE on a Koran Angelfish, Pomacanthus semicirculatus, unilateral exophthalmia (pop-eye) on a Chromileptis altivelis).

     What is a normal, or healthy color for the species, size, sex of individual you're looking for? (pictured: a spaced out, too-bright colored Majestic Angel, Pomacanthus euxiphipops navarchus ; the three species in this subgenus of Pomacanthus are commonly collected via cyanide)

How about breathing rate and range of gill movement? And the "fullness" of the body. What is the individuals "index of fitness"; the ratio of diameter over length. Is it overly "skinny", especially above the head? Along the flanks? ( a thin & stout Yellow Tail Blue, Paracanthurus hepatus). You want well-fleshed specimens.

    One way that fishes are different than the more familiar companion animals (like dogs and cats and us) is how such apparent poor physical condition can indicate a doomed individual. It may not be dead yet, but soon will be; little to stop it.

Behavior: What to Look and Look Out For:

In many ways, behavior is the best measure of an organisms vitality. Is the specimen out and about, curious about its surroundings, interacting with its tankmates, responding to your presence? ( a behaviorally well-adjusted Blue Face Angelfish, Pomacanthus Euxiphipops xanthometopon; clamped-finned, ataxic juvenile Imperator Angel; a great Pomacanthus annularis and good-curious Chaetodonoplus). It should be. Beware of spaced out, clamped-finned individuals, having "private parties in the corners.


 I wish I had a penny for every time someone is going to say "El Nino" today, or for the marines that will become "carpet jerky" by launching, crawling, otherwise getting out of their system on a one-way trip to oblivion. Know your livestock's' propensity for aquatic Houdiniism and keep your tank covered, or water level low... About the only non-jumpers/escape artists are the Seahorses and their kin. ( the Seahorse, Hippocampus kuda; and a Yellow-Striped Pipefish, Corythoichthys flavofasciatus). Really, just a note here to keep your tank covered against such losses... fishes and motile invertebrates.


Just because the you've located a "correct" species, of the appropriate size and apparent good condition, doesn't mean you should buy it. Is the specimen eating? Foods that you intend to offer? Don't take someone's word on this; demand that the stock be fed in your presence; at least once, better twice.

Territoriality and Order of Introduction:

 Like a Redox table displaying which chemical "species" steals or loses electrons to which, a list can be compiled of the most likely prevailing party in your systems pecking order (an Undulated Trigger, Balistapus undulatus near the top; a very docile Gobiodon would be near the bottom).

 Generally the largest (actual and ultimate) size species/specimen wins; but not always (ounce for ounce, the true terror of the reef, the Domino Damsel, Dascyllus trimaculatus). The dynamics of who goes in, in what order, sex ratios, best numbers of individuals (one, two, a few, many), and habitat partitioning need to be worked out in advance of purchase; best when planning out the size and components of the system itself. ( a large Imperator Angelfish. Pomacanthus imperator; the "king" of its tank). 

    Remember, all marine life is "aggressive" to a degree, and that there is a high degree of variation in temperament within some species.

To: Part 1,

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