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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. 3

Part 1, Part 2

Bob Fenner

Cirrhilabrus wrasses... beautiful and peaceful

How Long on Hand:

Just as with size, there is an ideal period of time for new arrivals to be on hand before your acquiring them; not too quick, nor too late; and yes this also varies by species, size, and individual. Allow me an example; thermal shock. Unlike what you may be familiar with as a warm-blooded animal having extensive experience with birds and mammals, fishes and invertebrates often do not show the ultimate sign (i.e. death) from stressors like high/low thermal exposure for a period of days. You and I can't tell from looking at livestock whether it is doomed from such extremes. What to do? Assure that the organisms have been on hand a few days or more before purchase. Yes, there are exceptions, such as the purchase of many types of stinging-celled invertebrates (e.g. several kinds of stony corals, gorgonians), but by and large "Midnight Madness Sales", where you can buy livestock "just arrived/right out of the bag" are a very poor idea.

Likewise there are examples of organisms you don't want to be too long on hand ; tangs, due to the ill-effects of long-term copper medication (where used) exposure; gobies and blennies ( the Redheaded Goby, Gobiosoma puncticulatus; the Tangaroa Goby, Ctenogobiops tangaroai; the Twin-Spot or "Crab-Eye" Goby, Signogobius biocellatus), from starvation; all organisms that seem otherwise healthy but housed/maintained under inadequate conditions where the "costs" of leaving them outweigh bringing them home.

Decent Species/Specimens for Reefs?: What's Left?

So you don't get all bummed out with all this negative talk, there is something more in the way of hardy stock for your reef system than tiny gobies (like Rainford's, Amblygobius rainfordi) or Ecsenius Blennies. There are Cardinals (family Apogonidae)(like Pterapogon kauderni, the Banggai cardinal), 

all sorts of other blennioid fishes (like this Labrisomid); Fusiliers (family Caesionidae)( Caesio suevicus, the Suez Fusilier); some Dragonets, family Callionymidae ( Neosynchiropus ocellatus, one of many "Scooter's); 

the ever-popular smaller Hawkfishes (family Cirrhitidae)(e.g. the Falco hawk, Cirrhitichthys falco); many Gobioids like the Dartfishes (family Microdesmidae)(e.g. the Firefish, Nemateleotris magnifica); the Basslets of the family Grammidae (e.g. the Royal Gramma, Gramma loreto);


 dozens of smaller, less aggressive Wrasses as previously mentioned,  the burrowing Jawfishes (family Opistognathidae)(e.g. the Yellow-Headed Opistognathus aurifrons); the pricey Roundheads called Sea Comets or Marine Bettas (e.g. Calloplesiops altivelis); some of the smaller Angelfishes (the Flameback Angel, Centropyge aurontonotus);

 the less aggressive Damsels and Clownfishes ( family Pomacentridae)(e.g. the Village Belle, Chrysiptera taupou, a pair of Maroon Clowns, Premnas biaculeatus); Dottybacks (family Pseudochromidae)( the Diadem Basslet, Pseudochromis diadema); less-gargantuan true Basses (family Serranidae) like the subfamily Anthiinae ( a male purple blotch Basslet, Pseudanthias pleurotaenia); and thousands more...

And what about tough live rock, sand, algae, invertebrates? Amongst the best? The Stoloniferans like Pipe-Organ Coral (Tubipora musica), and Star Polyps (e.g. Green Clavularia sp.);

 a plethora of tough soft corals (some Alcyoniid family pix,  (Shown:  Cladiella, Sarcophyton, including the Pulsing Corals/Xeniids ( Anthelia, Xenia spp.)


all sorts of the anemone-like zoanthids (Parazoanthus gracilis); Coral anemones, Order Corallimorpharia (e.g. Ricordea);

 cultured mollusks like the tridacnids; how many crustaceans? ( a couple of shrimp; Lysmata amboinensis, Stenopus hispidus);

 a myriad of spiny-skinned animals (an Archaster Seastar, urchin and cuke); ...and much, much more for the advanced hobbyist.

Not Getting Chintzed: The Deposit Game:

So, is there evidence of some widespread conspiracy between collectors, distributors and retailers (images: L.A. Wholesalers All Seas and Underwater World, Wet Pets, San Diego) to defraud the consumer public by offering improper species, or good ones of improper size or condition? Nope; having been these folks myself all my semi-adult life I can assure you that everyone is doing what they should do; "operating in their own best self-interest", by gathering together whatever they can that WILL SELL.          

    Ofttimes the collectors are non-aquarists, and have little exposure with long-term care of the stocks they harvest; ditto with the slip and slide of company-types betwixt them and retailers. How would they even know what the livestock eats? They don't feed them; and for the most part, they shouldn't. And the retailers' explanation for what they offer? Ask them! Most are "advanced" hobbyists who've been in business than less than two years (the average is about 22 months); they don't know much more than you. Very likely they're offering "what the public is asking for", or "trying out" new species or supplier. What do I suggest might be done to protect and further everyone's interest? A open, clear dialogue amongst all parties and accountability up and down the line; for the consumer "the deposit game".

Don't know if the livestock you have your eye on is quite "ready to go", but you've "got to have it"? Ask for the stores policy on "putting it on hold". Most have a mechanism for this type of "layaway"; and it operates to everyone's advantage. You are assured of the livestock's hardiness by allowing it to "rest up", acclimate and learn to accept a captive diet; the store gains by having a "sold" specimen on display to attract future customers, and leverage with their supplier against "anomalous" loss in the short term. When, where in doubt, but desirous of specimens, put down half and come back later.

Mail Order: Follow the Rules:

Live out in the boondocks? Or willing to take the big risk of DOAs, delayed freight, inclement weather, getting stiffed? One way of getting livestock, better, worse or the same quality is via direct shipment. Should you try this? Maybe. Some stocks are a definite deal by buying direct; live rock and sand especially. Know the species and what you're getting into in all cases, however. I would only try "bringing in your own", if you have the facilities for quarantine, treatment and the volume to justify the freight and other headaches. A not-so-obvious alternative may be to piggy-back your order with a local retailer. If so, be prepared to "share" the "pain" as well as the savings if there are troubles; there frequently are.

A few ground rules for "playing in the sandbox". If you're receiving livestock from a distance, know when it's arriving (leave a wide margin open), and meet the shipment on arrival. The shorter the time the livestock is bagged and boxed, the better. Don't rely on carriers, freight forwarders to keep your shipment in opportune circumstances; like out of the rain, or direct sunlight. Meet the shipment, transport it and put it away properly ASAP (image: an airline pick-up of livestock).

Payment: the livestock trade is a "cash and carry" industry. Most folks are honest in the pet-fish interest, and will abide by their stated replacement and credit policies for DOAs. But, read and comply with these explicitly. Generally, you must fill out a "complaint form" with the carrier for large losses (as in total losses for missing or obviously damaged boxes); one or a few losses must be called in, usually within 24 hours for any consideration. You may find an instamatic "Polaroid" (tm) image of use when disputing a credit.

Beyond Species & Specimen Collection: Quarantine & Dips:

Perhaps I'm apologetic; no, I'm not, for this possibly superfluous mention of "standard operating procedures" for preventing accidental introduction of undesirable pests and parasites with your intended new livestock. By all means, do isolate your acquisitions for a good two weeks outside their main/display system... or at the very least, employ an appropriate dipping/bath procedure for the type of life en route from your dealer to the intended home. (here: Yellow Tang with turbellarian "black spot" disease; easily eliminated through a freshwater dip). (The host and Paravortex causative mechanism on a mount below)

It makes little sense to educate yourself and seek out good specimens, to thwart it all by compulsively stocking new arrivals without preventive measures. Besides, who can tell how "fit" your new livestock really is? A resting period in quarantine often does "newbies" a great deal of good.

Cloze: The Value of Information

"Knowledge is power"; be powerful. Know what you want from the standpoints of its likelihood of doing well in your care, and cast your votes wisely for live material and organisms that as species and individuals have the best chances of thriving in your systems. How can you learn all this? You've already started by caring enough to find out. The internet, books, magazines, hobbyists and hobby groups, retailers/wholesalers/collectors/breeders, and not just "simple" observation, are all viable means toward the ends of enlightenment. In order comes Knowledge, Intelligence, Wisdom, then Love. You want to love your life in terms of appreciating the living world? You must learn it well first. 

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Allen, Gerald R. & Roger Steene. 1994. Indo-Pacific Coral Reef Field Guide.378pp. Tropical Reef Research, Singapore.

Blasiola, George C. 1986. Marine fish compatibility. FAMA 8/86.

Brawer, Marc. 1972. Compatibility. Marine Aquarist 3:1(72) Jan-Feb.

Burgess, Warren E. 1978. Selecting marine fishes. TFH 1/78.

Burgess, Warren E. 1978. The right size fishes. TFH 2/78.

Fenner, Bob. 1989. Successfully selling the popular marines. Pets Supplies Marketing 1/89.

Fenner, Bob. 1989. Selling compatible marine species. Pets Supplies Marketing 10/89.

Fenner, Bob & Cindi Camp. 1990. The most appropriate marine fishes for aquaria; retail selection, display and maintenance. FAMA 3/90.

Fenner, Robert. 1995. The continuing use of cyanide in the collection of marine fishes. FAMA 2/95.

Fenner, Robert. 1996. Look but don't touch! Marine catfishes of the family Plotosidae. TFH 7/96.

Fenner, Robert. 1996. The fishes we call hogfishes. TFH 10/96.

Fenner, Robert. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist. Microcosm, VT. 432pp.

Fox, Dale A. 1992. Some notes on selecting marine species. TFH 7/92.

Gosliner, Terence M., Behrens, David W. & Gary C. Williams. 1996. Coral Reef Animals of the Indo-Pacific. 314pp. Sea Challengers, Monterey, California.

Hemdal, Jay. 1988. Fishes for the home miniature reef. SeaScope v.5, Spring 88.

Hemdal, Jay. 1989. Saltwater fish: Ten great choices. AFM 4/89.

Hunt, Philip. 1998. Six of the best fishes for the reef aquarium. TFH 2/98.

Hunziker, Raymond E. 1986. The marine aquarium made easy. Part 3:Fishes. TFH 12/86.

Maki, Michael. 1992. How-to select a healthy marine fish. FAMA 10/92.

Michael, Scott W. 1990. An aquarists guide to the wrasses of the genus Pseudocheilinus. FAMA 9/90.

Michael, Scott W. 1992. A guide to the leopard wrasses (Genus: Macropharyngodon). SeaScope v.9, Spring 92.

Michael, Scott W. October 1994 on. Fishes for the marine aquarium. An excellent monthly series covering selection, care and natural history. Aquarium Fish Magazine.

O'Malley, John. 1989. Choosing saltwater fish. AFM 2/89.

Robertson, Graham C. 1977. A beginner's fishes. Marine Aquarist 8:3 & 4(77).

Schiemer, Gregory. 1997. Wrasses for the reef aquarium. Parts 1 & 2. FAMA 11,12/97.

Tullock, John. 1998. Environmental issues and the marine aquarium hobby. Part Two: Adaptability of fish to aquarium life. FAMA 2/98.

To: Part 1,

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