20 Reef-Safe Fish

Creating your dream saltwater aquarium is an exciting project. There are endless choices of LPS, SPS, soft corals, rocks, and reef-safe fish and invertebrates to add. Plus, adding different combinations make the best display reef tanks!

When selecting reef fish for your aquarium, what do you look for? Maybe it is the most beautiful fish to show off to your friends and family, or maybe it is a fish that will fit in with the crowd. 

Ultimately, you want to go down the reef-safe route. Adding a reef-safe fish will save you headaches down the line, and to get this, you will need to add reef fish that have agreeable temperaments, and ones that will thrive in your particular reef-tank setup. 

Perhaps the most popular choice and easily recognizable reef-safe fish is the clownfish. Yet, with a large selection of fish from colorful chromis, anthias, and firefish, to fairy wrasses and mandarinfish, there is a reef-safe fish available for everyone.

What Makes A Fish Reef-Safe?

When we refer to the term “reef-safe fish”, we simply mean a fish that is safe to add to a reef aquarium. The most obvious being… a fish that will not be aggressive towards smaller fish, invertebrates, and corals. But, a reef-safe fish doesn’t only consider reef compatibility. 

An unsafe coral environment can also cause fish to fall into the “not reef-safe” category. For example, a seahorse is considered reef-safe, however, as seahorses require low water flow and objects to hold onto, they would struggle in a typical reef tank. This is because reef tanks usually have a higher flow and corals that could be somewhat aggressive, should a seahorse want to hold on. 

But, this doesn’t mean that just because the fish you want to add is not considered reef safe, you should avoid it at all costs, as there are some ways that you can work around problems. 

Let’s put this into perspective…

So, you have your heart set on a particular fish and you also want to have an epic coral display. I mean, let’s face it, every reef enthusiast has dreamed about the perfect zoa garden right? Anyhow, if you find yourself in a situation where you want a particular fish and coral, do some research to see what the problems are and if you can overcome them. 

A prime example is butterflyfish. Butterflyfishes are known to prey on soft corals, and many pose a threat to reef aquariums. But some butterflyfish species are reef-safe in an aquarium with only small polyp stony (SPS) corals such as Acropora and Montipora corals

The good news is, there are so many reef-safe fish available to choose from, so you should have no issues in creating your dream display reef in your home or office!

Reef-Safe Fish

In no particular order, below we have 20 reef-safe candidates for your aquarium.

#1: Clownfish

Clownfish reef-safe fish

Clownfish Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Amphiprioninae
  • Size: Up to 4 inches
  • Lifespan: 6 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 20 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Community safe

Let’s kick off with by far the most popular reef-safe fish, the infamous clownfish, AKA Nemo. Everybody loves Nemo, so beginner fish keepers are keen to have them swimming inside their aquariums. With around 30 species of clownfish, there is no shortage of these playful reef-safe fish. 

Popular Reef-Safe Clownfish

  • Ocellaris Clownfish
  • Percula Clownfish
  • Picasso Clownfish
  • Maroon Clownfish
  • Tomato Clownfish

Clownfish are hardy fish, best kept in pairs. This is particularly crucial if it’s your first time housing clownfish. Just be prepared for them to claim an area of your tank and defend it with their life. So, if you have more than two clownfish, you may need to upgrade to a larger reef tank.

#2: Midas Blenny

Midas Blenny Reef-safe fish

Midas Blenny Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Ecsenius midas
  • Size: 5 inches
  • Lifespan: 2 to 5 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Reef community

If you are looking for a mesmerizing golden fish to add to your aquarium, look no further. The midas blenny is a playful and graceful reef-safe fish. 

When setting up your reef aquarium, ensure there are enough rocky outcroppings for the midas blenny to perch on and hide in. Although they are peaceful, the midas blenny can become territorial with other species if the aquarium is too small.

#3: Blue-Green Chromis

Blue-Green Chromis

Blue-Green Chromis Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Chromis viridis
  • Size: Around 4 inches
  • Lifespan: 8 to 15 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Reef community

Reef-safe fish like the blue-green chromis is winning hearts in the hobbyist world with their attractive green and blue scales and peaceful nature. 

Blue-green chromis are active swimmers, seen cruising in the upper areas of the reef. They are also keen schooling fish, yet we recommend adding an odd number of chromis to avoid aggressive behavior.

#4: Royal Gramma

Royal Gramma

Royal Gramma Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Gramma loreto
  • Size: 3 inches
  • Lifespan: 5 to 6 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Reef community

It only takes one quick look to see why the royal gramma is so popular in reef aquariums. Its luminous purple front beautifully contrasts its yellow hind, creating a visually captivating addition to any reef. 

They don’t require a very large reef tank, yet they enjoy spending their time in rocks, caves, and stony corals, so make a note to allow enough space for those when setting up your aquarium.

#5: Six Line Wrasse

Six Line Wrasse

Six Line Wrasse Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Pseudocheilinus hexataenia
  • Size: 3 inches
  • Lifespan: 4 to 6 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatibility: Reef community – but watch they do not harass smaller fish

Six-line wrasse, as its name suggests, has six lines along its body. It also has two lines on its eyes, giving it a unique look in addition to its hardy attractiveness.

Many hobbyists are also attracted by its ability to eat common aquarium pests

The only downside is its aggression towards firefish or royal grammas. The six-line wrasse is known to pick on smaller shy fish, so it’s best to avoid adding these types of fish together inside your reef tank.

#6: Bangaii Cardinalfish 

Bangaii Cardinalfish Reef-Safe Fish

Bangaii Cardinalfish Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Pterapogon kauderni
  • Size: 2.5 to 5 years
  • Lifespan: Up to 3 inches
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy to moderate
  • Diet: Primarily carnivores
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Reef community

If you are searching for a hardy reef-safe fish with a colossal personality, the Banggai cardinalfish is a great choice. 

They get their unique name from their location in the wild (Indonesia’s Banggai Archipelago) and are easily identified by their zebra pattern with epic white spots. 

These cardinalfish are best kept in pairs or alone as larger groups can become territorial when they pair off to breed. 

If you are considering buying a Banggai cardinalfish, ask your local fish store (LFS) if it is captive-bred or caught from the wild. Always go with captive-bred as Banggai cardinalfish are endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

#7: Pajama Cardinalfish

Pajama Cardinalfish

Pajama Cardinalfish Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Sphaeramia nematoptera
  • Size: Up to 3 inches
  • Lifespan: 2 to 5 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Reef community

Compared to their Banggai cousins, the pajama cardinalfish is extremely colorful. They are identified by their large red eyes and yellow head, accompanied by a dark stripe down the middle and dots covering their back. 

If you are looking to breed pajama cardinalfish, watch out for their aggressive nature as they pair up. If you are successful in breeding them, it is utterly impressive as they are mouth-brooding fish like their Bangaii cousins, which means the male carries the eggs inside his mouth the entire time!

#8: Azure Damselfish

Azure Damselfish

Azure Damselfish Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Chrysiptera hemicyanea
  • Size: Up to 3 inches
  • Lifespan: 4 to 5 years, sometimes longer
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive – they are territorial fish
  • Compatibility: Reef community – avoid adding them to an aquarium with large fish that could eat them

Azure damselfish are brightly colored with contrasting yellow bellies and tails. They are very hardy fish, perfect for beginner hobbyists looking for reef-safe fish to add bursts of color to their reef tank. 

They are also super fun to watch, as they dart in and out of rocks. But, this has led to the azure damselfish to claim territory, so make sure you have a large enough tank to prevent any conflict.

#9: Mandarinfish

Mandarinfish

Mandarinfish Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Synchiropus splendidus
  • Size: 3 inches
  • Lifespan: 2 to 4 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Moderate to intermediate
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Community tanks

Whoever scientifically named them got one thing right, the mandarinfish is very splendid indeed!

Mandarinfish are stunning reef dwellers, prized for their vibrant orange and blue coloration and sweeping swirls around their bodies. 

They are very peaceful and slow-moving, however, they require being well fed and they must be acclimated to eating fish foods. Some hobbyists have been successful in training mandarinfish to accept brine shrimp, but this takes patience and time.

#10: Tangs (Surgeonfish)

Tangs (Sturgeonfish)

Tangs Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Acanthuridae
  • Size: 6 to 12 inches
  • Lifespan: Average 8 to 10 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 150 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy to intermediate
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive – some tangs can be territorial
  • Compatibility: Reef community 

Tangs come in every color imaginable, all of which are beautiful reef tank additions. 

Popular Reef-Safe Tangs

  • Yellow Tang
  • Purple Tang
  • Powder Blue Tang
  • Orange Shoulder Tang
  • Sailfin Tang
  • Powder Browg Tang

Tangs are susceptible to fish diseases ICH (see image below) and head and lateral line erosion (HLLE), therefore, it is critical in maintaining stable water conditions at all times.

#11: Orchid Dottyback

Orchid Dottyback Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Pseudochromis fridmani
  • Size: 2.8 inches
  • Lifespan: 5 to 7 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful – only semi-aggressive under certain circumstances (known to defend territory)
  • Compatibility: Reef with caution – they will prey on ornamental shrimps, fanworms, and bristleworms

The orchid dottyback has a deep purple and red hue, typically seen darting around reef aquariums and seeking shelter in holes or rocks. 

These fish look great in pairs, but to do this successfully, you must introduce them into the aquarium at the same time. If you try to add another orchid dottyback later on, the first one is likely to defend its territory aggressively. 

Orchid dottybacks are reef-safe fish and therefore will not harm any corals or invertebrates in your display tank.

#12: Tailspot Blenny 

Tailspot Blenny

Tailspot Blenny Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Ecsenius stigmatura
  • Size: 2.5 inches
  • Lifespan: 3 to 5 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 15 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Reef community, but avoid larger carnivorous or overly assertive tankmates

If the name hasn’t given it away, the most distinguishing feature of the tailspot blenny is the spot on its tail. Apart from the large spot, it has a long and thin body with large eyes, and a band running along its belly. 

As the tailspot blenny is very shy, it is important not to pair them with aggressive fish.

#13: Longnose Hawkfish

Longnose Hawkfish Reef-Safe Fish

Longnose Hawkfish Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Oxycirrhites typus
  • Size: Up to 5 inches
  • Lifespan: Up to 10 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy to intermediate
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatibility: Semi-aggressive towards smaller fish

Easily identified by its extended snout and white body with an orange criss-cross pattern, the longnose hawkfish is a solo swimmer in reef aquariums unless the aquarium is large enough to house more than one. Just like many wrasse species, the longnose hawkfish is also a jumper, so secure your aquarium lid, nice and tight.

These fish are semi-aggressive, so to prevent them from preying on invertebrates and smaller fish, and nipping on corals, keep your fish well-fed at all times.

#14: Green Bird Wrasse

Green Bird Wrasse

Green Bird Wrasse Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Gomphosus varius
  • Size: Up to 12 inches
  • Lifespan: 2 to 4 years in captivity, wild unknown
  • Recommended Tank Size: 125 gallons
  • Care Level: Moderate
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatibility: To be kept with suitably sized fish – they will not tolerate aggressive fish

The green bird wrasse has a distinct deep green color and quirky-shaped mouth, which is how it got its common name. But, it is only the male that exhibits this particular coloration, as the female is brown to black in color. 

Because the green bird wrasse is an active swimmer, a longer display tank is recommended. These reef-safe fish can also jump, so ensure a secure lid is fitted to your tank. 

You should also place enough rocks and caves inside your reef tank, as they are also active explorers. This is also why they are semi-aggressive. Green bird wrasse often explores in nooks and crannies to find any snacks, including invertebrates.

#15: Firefish Goby

Firefish Goby Reef-Safe Fish

Firefish Goby Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Nemateleotris magnifica
  • Size: 3.5 inches
  • Lifespan: Up to 3 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 20 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Community reef tank

The firefish goby is a fast-swimming fish that loves cruising above the reef, but if disturbed, they are quick to access their hiding place. 

Their white or yellow front that transitions into a red or orange gives them a unique ombre coloration, complete with black trim around their dorsal and anal fins. 

They are extremely peaceful reef-safe fish, not known to harm corals, fish, or invertebrates in your reef tank. The only thing is their burrowing behavior, so keep that in mind when selecting your aquarium substrate.

#16: Starry Blenny

Starry Blenny Reef-Safe Fish

Starry Blenny Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Salarias ramosus
  • Size: 5.5 inches
  • Lifespan: Up to 6 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 30 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Reef compatible 

The starry blenny is a fish that doesn’t disappoint. They have a dark brown body covered in white dots and cirri extensions between their eyes, which are used to detect danger in the water – how cool!

To make the starry blenny feel at home, provide plenty of live rocks so they can search for surface algae to munch on and a place to perch between meals. 

Starry blennies are reef-safe, but they can occasionally pick at clams and corals if they get too hungry, so remember to feed them a couple of times a day. 

#17: Possum Wrasse

Possum Wrasse Reef-Tank Safe Fish

Possum Wrasse Overview:

  • Scientific Name: Wetmorella nigropinnata
  • Size: 2 to 2.6 inches
  • Lifespan: Up to 10 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 10 gallons
  • Care Level: 
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Temperament: Very peaceful
  • Compatibility: Fish-only or reef aquarium

The possum wrasse is known for its vivid coloration. It has a distinctive orange body with thin white stripes that run vertically along its body. On its dorsal and anal fins, large black dots complete its unique look. 

Possom wrasses love to be paired up with corals and invertebrates, so you needn’t worry about them taking a nip here and there. They are also fairly shy, and are often seen seeking shelter in the aquascape. Because of their shyness, it is best to avoid pairing them with aggressive fish which could prevent the possum wrasse from eating enough food. 

One thing we must also note is their tendency to jump out of aquariums, so keep a lid on at all times.

#18: Fairy Wrasse

Fairy Wrasse Reef-Safe Fish

Fairy Wrasse Overview

  • Scientific Name: Cirrhilabrus aurantidorsalis
  • Size: 3 to 6 inches
  • Lifespan: Average of 5 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 55 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy to moderate
  • Diet: Preferred carnivorous diet
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Compatible with reef-safe fish smaller than them

Fairy wrasses are one of the most mesmerizing and beautiful reef-safe fish. Not only does the fairy wrasse have striking patterns and colors, but they also have interesting behaviors and bold personalities. 

There are many different types of fairy wrasse available, in fact, there are too many color and pattern combinations to list in this article. When healthy, the fairy wrasse will become brighter, and when aggravated during mating, their colors pop even more!

#19: Sunburst Anthias

Sunburst Anthias

Sunburst Anthias Overview

  • Scientific Name: Serranocirrhitus latus
  • Size: Up to 5 inches
  • Lifespan: Up to 3 years
  • Recommended Tank Size: 75 gallons
  • Care Level: Easy to moderate
  • Diet: Carnivore/Planktivore
  • Temperament: Peaceful
  • Compatibility: Reef community

Sunburst anthias are brightly colored fish with rays of gold splashed across their orange body. These medium-sized reef-safe fish are shy and gentle with corals and invertebrates, so they will have no issues fitting into your display tank. 

However, the sunburst anthia prefers living on their own or as a pair, which is fantastic news if you are looking for breeding fish. If you do try to breed them, ensure there is enough space and plenty of hiding spots to prevent confrontations between the species. 

#20: Bicolor Angelfish (Dwarf Angelfish)

Bicolor Angelfish (Dwarf Angelfish)

Bicolor Angelfish Overview

  • Scientific Name: Centropyge bicolor
  • Size: Up to 6 inches
  • Lifespan: 5 to 10 years (up to 12 years in captivity)
  • Recommended Tank Size: 55 gallons
  • Care Level: Moderate
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive
  • Compatibility: Reef-safe with caution – aggressive towards other angelfish

Lastly, we have an all-time favorite, the bicolor angelfish. Bicolor angelfish fall under dwarf angelfish and are one of the few angelfish that can be considered reef-safe. 

Their vibrant yellow and deep blue coloration makes the bicolor angelfish one of the most striking angelfish species available. 

There is no doubt that bicolor angelfish are stunning reef fish, but they can occasionally be problematic in reef tanks. Angelfish are known to nip at stony and soft corals, so it is best to stick to a live-rock-only reef aquarium. 

Summary

No reef tank is complete without fish to swim around your display tank. There are many reef-safe fish available, and understanding the ins and outs of each will save effort, time, and money over simply heading down to your LFS and picking any fish hoping for the best. 

Remember, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to reef aquariums and live animals like fish. So, if your reef-safe fish doesn’t seem so reef-safe, remove it before it causes serious damage or issues to other tank inhabitants, you will thank me later!

    by
  • Darby Bonner

    As a marine biologist, scuba diving instructor, and experienced aquarium hobbyist, I am obsessed with everything from corals to cruising pelagics like sharks, and everything else in between.

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