Reef Safe Saltwater Fish Guide

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Reef Safe Saltwater Fish


A reef can make a beautiful addition to your saltwater fish tank, but caution needs to be taken when doing so. Not all saltwater fish are considered reef safe. Some fish will tear right through your corals, eat other fish, and cause chaos in your aquarium. And since we all know how much money and work it takes to create the perfect aquarium, this is something we definitely want to avoid. But what fish are considered to be reef safe, and what fish will create underwater chaos? Today we’ll take a look at a few of each.

100% Reef Safe Fish:

These fish are considered to be fully safe to purchase if you own a reef tank. They should not bother your corals in any way.

  • Clownfish
  • Gobies
  • Surgeon Fish
  • Sea Scallops (invertebrate)




Ah, Nemo – Everybody’s favorite clownfish. And the good news is, you can bring Nemo right into your home aquarium – even if it has a reef. Clownfish are considered a 100% reef safe fish and are the ideal fish for beginners. Because Clownfish are typically found living among reefs and anemones, they are already used to living in small living spaces.

There are many different species of Clownfish including the:

  • False Percula Clownfish
  • True Percula Clownfish
  • Pink Skunk Clownfish
  • Tomato Clownfish
  • Saddleback Clownfish
  • Clarkii Clownfish
  • Maroon Clownfish

With the exception of the Maroon and Clarkii Clownfish, each of these species should thrive in a saltwater reef aquarium. Just be careful which inhabitants you place in the tank with them, as some of these variations of clownfish would love to snack on small shrimp.

What about the Maroon and Clarkii Clownfish? These fish tend to be larger than most other clownfish at maturity and may exert aggressive behavior. They are not ideal for household aquariums. They are both known to be very aggressive not only to other tankmates but to you as well. I have been attacked and bitten by these guys while performing maintenance on the tank.  They have quite a bite! So if you are looking for peaceful clownfish, avoid the Maroon and Clarkii.



Gobies fall into three different categories: small gobies, shrimp gobies, and sand sifting gobies. These fish are considered to be non-aggressive and will not feast on your coral. While their diet varies from species to species, they much prefer to snack on things like amphipods, copepods, and algae. Their lack of aggression and interest in coral makes them the ideal choice for home aquariums with reefs.






Surgeonfish sometimes referred to as “tang”, are thin, deep-bodied marine fish. They come in a variety of different species including the yellow surgeon, the blue tang, and the Manini.  These fish are herbivores and will only eat algae. In return, they won’t munch down on your invertebrates or corals.

While Surgeonfish do well in saltwater tanks with reefs, it’s important to note that these fish can grow up 50cm long, and therefore may outgrow small tanks. They are only recommended for bigger reefs.

Sea Scallops:


A Sea Scallop is not technically a fish and is referred to as an invertebrate (without a backbone). They are typically found hanging out on the ocean floor, between 20-110 meters down. Sea Scallops have a hinged shell that they use to both swim and eat.

While they are a favorite feast among seafood lovers, they can also make an excellent addition to your coral reef tank. Two of the most commonly available types of sea scallop are the Bright Red Flame and the Electric Flame. Neither of these invertebrates poses any danger to your coral reefs and will help to filter plankton out of your water.

Note: Sea Scallops can be difficult to care for – be sure to do your research to ensure that you have the ability to successfully maintain their needs before purchasing.

Reef Safe with Caution:


These fish are considered reef safe but you need to pay special attention to them as it’s possible that some may harm certain corals.

  • Angelfish
  • Hermit Crabs
  • Lion Fish



Flame angelfish reef safe



Angelfish are one of the most popular choices for saltwater aquariums. In general, they are considered to be a peaceful and non-aggressive fish (unless breeding). These fish make a beautiful addition to any coral reef because they come in a variety of different colors.

While smaller species of Angelfish are considered safe for saltwater reef conditions, it’s important that they are properly fed. If algae is not readily available for them to feast on, they may begin to pick away at your corals. They may also eat smaller fish if there is nothing else to graze on.


Hermit Crabs


If you’re looking for something that can help you to keep your tank clean, look no further than a Hermit Crab. This species will sift in the sand at the bottom of your tank, and feast on algae, providing you with free janitorial services. With that being said, it’s important that you pick out your hermit crabs carefully. While some species like the Dwarf Blue Leg Hermit Crab and the Electric Orange Hermit crab are considered to be safe for reef environments, there are some other species that will destroy your coral and kill other fish. Proceed with caution when purchasing a hermit crab for your tank.


Lion Fish


The unique appearance of the Lion Fish makes it another favorite among tank enthusiasts. These fish do well in coral reef aquariums as they will not harm the coral. With that being said, they are to be placed “with caution” as they will eat smaller fish. As such, they should only be kept in aquariums with fish larger than them. Even then, caution should be used as they may be bullied by more active fish like Triggers and Angelfish.

Lion Fish do best when in reef tanks on their own, or when paired with larger, non-aggressive fish.


Not Reef Safe:


These fish are considered not reef safe with a few exceptions. They can eat and possibly destroy many types of corals and you should be cautious of putting them into a reef tank.

  • Butterfly Fish
  • Triggerfish


Butterfly Fish


butterfly-fish-not-reef safe



The Butterfly Fish is one of the most beautiful saltwater fish there are, making it very tempting for enthusiasts to add them to their aquarium. But if you have a saltwater reef aquarium, the Butterfly Fish is not a safe choice.  These fish are considered to be corallivores, meaning they only eat coral polyps. In other words, your coral doesn’t stand a chance in the presence of many Butterflyfish.

Note: There are some Butterflyfish that are considered safe “with caution”. These include the Pyramid Butterfly, the Copperbanded Butterfly, and the Zoster Butterfly. Read my list of reef safe Butterflyfish here. With that being said, these fish require a great deal of attention and upkeep and should be left to the experts.




Who doesn’t love the Pufferfish? Know for their unique ability to “inflate”, these fish have an amazing ability to ingest large amounts of water, making themselves much larger than their normal size.  But despite the fact that we would all love to add a puffer to our tank, they don’t do well in coral reefs aquariums. The reason for this is mostly based on their diet which consists mostly of algae and invertebrates.

While the Pufferfish is unlikely to go after your coral, it is often seen as incompatible with most “reef safe” fish. If you have your heart set on a puffer, you are better off with a fish only tank.


Chocolate Chip & Red Knob Sea Stars


Though most Sea Stars are generally considered to be reef safe, there are a few species that should never be added to your reef aquarium. Two of these species are the Chocolate Chip Sea Star and the Red Knob Seastar. These two species of Star will feed on your reefs and cause damage to your corals.

In conclusion, a saltwater reef tank can make a beautiful addition to your home, and there are many different fish and invertebrates that you can add to give it some color. Having said that, even when selecting fully “reef safe” fish, you should always be careful with their pairings. Not all reef safe fish are compatible, so it’s important that you choose fish who are not going to bully or attack one another.


Thanks For Reading!


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