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Related FAQs: Reproduction, Hormonal Manipulation of FishesMarine Fish Culture Culturing Food Organisms

Related Articles: Reproduction, Marine Ornamental Fish CultureCulturing Food Organisms,

Breeding Marine Fishes at Home

By Bob Fenner

ORA Tank bred Clowns

Breeding Marine Fishes at Home

Once the "Holy Grail" of the saltwater aquarium experience, breeding and rearing marine fishes (and non-fishes) has become, if not easy, far from impossible. Indeed, many of the most popular types of marines; Clownfishes, Dottybacks (family Pseudochromidae), Cardinalfishes, Gobiosoma Gobies, even Seahorses are produced in good numbers by commercial culturists and earnest aquarists.

Examples of Tank Bred and Reared Fishes:

Amphiprion clarkii pair Pseudochromis splendens Pterapogon kauderni

What does it take to reproduce and culture these fishes? A plan of action, backed with an understanding of the processes involved, especially adequate arrangements for feeding your new young fishes, and a commitment in gear to provide a proper environment for their healthy growth. Let's review these "steps to completion" using examples of the above species groups as these are the most popular, best-documented types for you to try.

A/The Plan:

Like all important projects, it is paramount to know what you're about before committing resources… like money and livestock, to avoid mistakes. What do you really need to know about the species of fish that you want to breed? For instance, do they spawn in pairs like the Clownfishes and Gobies? Or are they more group-spawners? Are there differences between the sexes? Will you be able to buy certified mated "pairs", or will it make more sense, or be necessary for you to buy a group of them and rear them to reproductive size?

Gobiosoma evelynae, a 'pair' spawner at left and a Dwarf Angel, Centropyge loricula, an example of a haremic spawner at right.

How big a system will it take to successfully spawn them? Many species of mated Clowns are kept in ten gallon aquariums, whereas Dottybacks are best kept in a breeding group in a much larger (at least forty gallons, bigger is better) system. Most species of Seahorses need to be kept in their own dedicated "species" system in order to be happy and healthy. Cardinalfishes (family Apogonidae) are one of two odd families in the marine world in which the males are mouthbrooders. Much like the familiar Mbuna African Lake Cichlids, (note to editor, this reference will make sense to marine keepers… the vast majority who have graduated from freshwater keeping) Cardinalfish males pick up fertilized eggs and keep them safe and aerated by passing water over them via oral incubation.

Dottybacks like the Pseudochromis aldabraensis on the left need large breeding quarters, Seahorses like Hippocampus reidi on the right need just enough room for the male to live, release their young.

And what are you going to do with all the young? Clownfish and Dottyback broods can range from a couple to a handful of hundreds of babies. Seahorses can be dozens to a few hundred. Gobies and Cardinals reproduce in batches in the dozens of new individuals. You'll need to plan way ahead to make sure you have space, food (more about this important part of the puzzle below), as well as all other maintenance gear… and time.

Know what you're getting into and put THE PLAN down in writing. You'll be glad you did.

Knowledge: Where To Get Help

When and where it comes to breeding these and other marines, you don't have to "re-invent the wheel". Seek out the in print help of others who have "been there, bred that". A few names to help make your search easier in searching the literature: for marine ornamental aquaculture overall, Frank Hoff; for Clownfishes, Joyce Wilkerson; for Dottybacks, Martin Moe, for Seahorses, Amanda Vincent.

Many hobbyists and business people who have successfully bred and reared marines have written about their experiences as articles in hobbyist magazines. Some larger libraries and Clubs have collections of these periodicals. Recent subject indices and more can be found by searching the Internet for these magazines. In particular I recommend looking over Aquarium Frontiers Online, Freshwater and Marine Aquarium, and Tropical Fish Hobbyist.

While we're mentioning the Net, I would encourage you to browse the Public Aquariums' many home pages as well. Many of these have reports on their staffs' captive breeding programs. Some even have ways for you to correspond with their "cultured" staff.

Stock Selection:

Even in the short space of an introduction to the topic of marine fish breeding, there are a few critically important points to make concerning how to go about picking out your breeders. Obviously you will want the best quality, sexually mature adults in your culture effort. Depending on the species, this can be an easy/short to long/arduous proposition.

Happily, there are good livestock suppliers that are able to procure Clownfishes in known breeding pairs, collected as such from the wild. Alternatively, buying them in a group, and waiting for them to "grow, and pair-up" can take a year or more.

A pair of Premnas biaculeatus at a wholesalers.

Dottybacks need to be purchased as small and reared together to optimize chances of breeding as well as minimizing their intense aggression toward each other. Simply placing sexually mature individuals together is often a tumultuous disaster.

Pseudochromis steenei. A very aggressive species.

The facultative Cleaner Gobies (genus Gobiosoma) are another matter. They can be purchased as a small group of young tank-bred individuals, and raised to maturity in a few months.

Gobiosoma oceanops, available all year round thanks to commercial breeders.

You may recall that Seahorses and their relatives (Pipefishes, Ghostfishes, family Syngnathidae) have a bit of sex reversal where brooding is concerned.

Corythoichthys flavofasciatus, a tube-mouthed fish relative of the Seahorses. Similar male-brooding in its reproductive behavior.

Seahorses are typically purchased as "pregnant males" with brooding young within their pouch at some stage of development, rather than females and males that aquarists attempt to breed in captivity… though this can/has been done as well. If you're procuring a brooding male, strive to get one that isn't "too pregnant" as the rigors of being moved, handled can take their toll on the parent and pouched ponies.

Cardinalfishes as a rule are "spawned" by accident, with males just "turning up" with a mouth full of eggs or young. Only a few Cardinals can be sexed externally (e.g. the most popular species, the Banggai, Pterapogon kauderni), so, if/where in doubt, you'll do best by buying a small group (5,7,9) of individuals, place them in an appropriately large (some species fight) system, and hope they engage in reproductive behavior.

Foods and Feeding Young:

This is really the sticky point of most people's efforts at captive breeding. Getting enough food of the right size and type to your fry is critical. Most have a short egg sac period of a few days, afterwards which they must be fed a few to several times a day. Generally with live food. The real catch here is that you can't just buy these food organisms (though you can get starter cultures for them… for instance from Carolina Biological Supply on the Net, suppliers that advertise in the backs of hobby magazines.). And you need to have these cultures of, say, baby brine shrimp, rotifers, phytoplankton, copepods going full bore before the young hatch out.


Forewarned is forearmed. For the fish you have in mind to captive reproduce there's more than simply sticking two together. Do study up and know your species husbandry down cold. How much brood-stock will you need? Where will they come from? What sort of setting do they require? What will you have to do to supply enough food for their offspring?

Given initially good livestock, an optimized, stable environment, most fishes will engage in reproduction… Planning ahead of time in order to provide proper space, food and care for the young will greatly increase your chances of success at breeding and rearing marine fishes.

Bibliography/Further Reading:


Anon. 1984. Conditioning and spawning of marine fishes. Part I: Adult pairs, SeaScope v.1, Spring 1984, Part 2, Larval foods, Summer 1984. 

Fenner, Bob. 1992. Aquaculture: General principles. FAMA 6/92.

Friese, U. Erich. 1971. So you want to breed marine fish. Marine Aquarist 2(4):71.

Glodek, Garrett S. 1992. Fish reproduction: How much do you know? FAMA 7/92.

Hoff, Frank. 1985. Who and what was Instant Ocean Hatcheries. FAMA 8/85.

Kloth, Thomas C. 1979. Breeding and raising tropical marine fish. pts 1,2 ,3 FAMA 4,5,6/79.

Leibel, Wayne S. 1985. From spawning to hatching: a brief history of fish egg development. FAMA 3/85.

Michael, Scott W. 1995. Fishes for the marine aquarium. Looking at reproductive schemes. AFM 3/95.

Sands, David D. 1992. Good breeding. You either have it of you don't. FAMA 7/92.

Siddall, Scott E. 1979. The culture of marine fish larvae. pts. 1,2 FAMA 10,11/79.

Sohn, Joel Jay. 1994. Development of the fish embryo. TFH 7/94.

Spencer, Gary C. 1975. Thoughts on breeding and rearing marines. Marine Aquarist 6(6):75.

Spies, Gunther. 1985. What marine fishes can be bred? Today's Aquarium 3/85.

Watson, Craig A. 1995. Investing in the future. Captive breeding of marine tropicals. FAMA 3/95.

Young, Forrest A. 1995. Rearing systems for marine fish larvae. FAMA 7/95.

Young, Forrest A. 1995. Grow out systems for marine tropical fish. FAMA 9/95.

Young, Forrest A. 1996. The state of tropical marine aquarium animal cultivation. FAMA 5/96.

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