In Mid-2020, I conducted a survey among Saltwater Aquarium Blog Newsletter readers to get some important coral care and saltwater fish statistics.
More than 200 aquarium enthusiasts took the survey, contributing thousands of data points. A summary of the most interesting stats is included below.
What saltwater fish types are most successful in a home aquarium?
Which saltwater fish types are you most likely to be successful with, and which are the most challenging to keep? That question has been difficult to answer with precision, until now.
We asked 234 aquarium enthusiasts to share with us the saltwater fish types that they have had success keeping, and those that they have been unsuccessful keeping. We then tabulated up more than 1,400 individual votes to help figure out the answer to the question which saltwater fish types are most successful in a home aquarium.
The 10 saltwater fish with the most experience (successful + unsuccessful)
This first chart below shows the results for the Top 10 Saltwater Fish with the most responses. These are essentially the 10 most commonly kept saltwater fish types, demonstrated by the most people having experience with them, either good or bad.
From these data on the most common fish, we can glean, at a glance, the relative popularity of a given saltwater fish type and the relative magnitude of how often the respondents indicated SUCCESSFUL or UNSUCCESSFUL with that type.
These graphs remind me a bit of a ‘tug-of-war’. You can see reasonably convincing ‘wins’ among the Successful crowd below.
The 10 saltwater fish types that aquarium enthusiasts had the least success with
As we get to the bottom of the list, which was sorted in popularity (total number of votes), you can also see a correlation to higher UNSUCCESSFUL tallies.
The 10 most challenging saltwater fish types to care for were:
- Grunts & Sweetlips (0% success)
- Pipefish (30% success)
- Jawfish (44% success)
- Dragonets (52% success)
- Eels (53% success)
- Butterflyfish (54% success)
- Boxfish (55% success)
- Groupers (56% success)
- Seahorses (64% success)
- Tilefish (67% success)
Table with the success rate for every saltwater fish type
To get to a more precise representation of what these data tell us about the relative nature of the fish types, I created a SUCCESS RATE metric, which is equal to the number of times a fish was voted as SUCCESSFUL divided by the total number of votes (SUCCESSFUL + UNSUCCESSFUL).
Here are the results in table form, from the most successful (highest success rate) to the least successful (lowest success rate), as well as the number of total votes for that fish type (n):
|Saltwater Fish Type||Had success with||Success rate||n|
|Assessors or Marine Bettas||37||90%||41|
|Tangs or Surgeonfish||71||90%||79|
|Grunts & Sweetlips||0||0%||3|
While not as beautiful to look at as the stacked bar graph, the Success Rate score with the sample size gives a clear articulation of how many people were successful out of how many attempted.
It feels like the success rate is fairly easy to use, too. For example, clownfish, a fish type that everyone knows is a great fish, had a 95% Success Rate.
Next, we need a statistic to help us understand what good or bad results are. Clearly, the fact that 3 different people tried Grunts/Sweetlips and each was unsuccessful is a bad score, but what’s average?
Turns out the average gets skewed a little low because of the low sample size and low success scores at the bottom of the list, so it looks like the better statistic for comparisons will be the median or middle result.
To calculate that value, I had to split the results between the Basslets/Gramma and Chromis to get the numerical result of 77.5%. But that exercise also gives us our comparison fish.
Basslets/Gramma and Chromis as our “average” fish.
Above them are saltwater fish that are easier than the “average” to care for, and the fish below them are more difficult than the “average”.
You may not have seen my fingers, but those were “air quotes” around the word average for those out there who had a similar math teacher as I did.
What aquarium coral types are most successful in a reef tank?
The 200+ survey volunteers also answered a similar question about the corals they have attempted to keep, with a sample size of 1,249 individual votes.
The average in this data set is 68% and the median is 67.5%, so we can just use 68% and talk about the average here without the air quotes.
|Coral type||Had success with||Success rate||n|
|Green star polyps||100||85%||117|
|Favia or Favites||27||66%||41|
|Trumpet & Candy Cane||34||62%||55|
|Goniopora flower pot||25||58%||43|
I guess you could call this data set more…”normal.”
Apparently, there are two things I can’t resist in this world and the first, is air quotes…
If we use the same comparison as we did with the fish, we can see that aquarium enthusiasts had greater than average success with the corals above Euphyllia and worse than average success with those corals below.
We see lower success rates with corals compared with fish overall. A lower high score and a lower mean and median score as well.
It is interesting to point out, however, that the lowest low, for any coral has a higher success rate than the three lowest fish scores. The probability of success or failure with those least successful corals are a flip of a coin.
10 Coral types that aquarium enthusiasts had the greatest success with
The 10 corDamselfishquarium enthusiasts had the greatest success with were:
- Green star polDamselfishXenia
- Sarcophyton (Toadstools)
- Seriatopora (Birdsnest)
- Sinularia (Cabbage)
Which are the most challenging coral types for a home aquarium?
The 7 most challenging coral types that aquarium enthusiasts had the least success with were:
- Fungia plate
The 6 corals that aquarium enthusiasts have the most experience with are:
After # 6, Xenia, there is a significant drop off in the number of responses.
What are the most popular first saltwater starter fish to be first in a new aquarium?
The 200+ survey respondents were also asked what their very first saltwater fish was. 209 answers were tallied and summarized in the table below.
Here is a list of the most common 1st saltwater fish in an aquarium, ranked by popularity:
|Saltwater fish type||% First Fish|
I’m glad to see clownfish are number 1, by a healthy margin, and not damselfish, given the high success rate of clownfish (95%) and the relative problems that damselfish can sometimes cause in a tank due to their somewhat aggressive dispositions.
There were a few surprises on this list of the 10 Most Popular 1st Saltwater fish. First, the fact that 1 in 9 tanks started with a Tang or Surgeonfish, the 3rd most popular fish type, was much higher than I would have thought, given the relatively large tank size requirements and cost of these fish.
It was also surprising thDamselfisher Angelfish was the type of fish this survey group had the most experience with, but they represented only 1 % of 1st fish. I wouldn’t usually recommend an Angelfish as a 1st fish anyway, but I wouldn’t recommend a Tang either.
But relating to the earlier table, we saw nearly twice as much experience with Angelfish vs. Tangs (135 vs. 79). Yet, the tangs were 11x’s more commonly a 1st saltwater fish, seems to indicate their use as a first fish driving some of the popularity.
Gobies were also conspicuously absent, falling below the Top 10 First fish in a 5-way tie for 11th place.
What type of clownfish is the most common saltwater starter fish (the very first fish in a new marine aquarium)?
Diving one level deeper into the clownfish results, we see that the majority of responsdents did not specify the type of clownfish they had, as their first saltwater starter fish.
Of those who did specify the type, the Ocellaris clownfish was the most common, followed by Percula, Maroon, Tomato, Clarkii, Saddleback, and more specifically articulated designer Ocellaris strains, like Black Ice, Snowflake, Black Snowflake and Black.
|Clownfish Listed as 1st Fish.||%|
|Unspecified (Ocellaris assumed)||70%|
|Ocellaris (Designer type, if any, not specified)||10%|
|Black Ice (Ocellaris)||2%|
|Black snowflake (Ocellaris)||1%|
The question was an open text response, meaning respondents could type in anything they wanted, and there were no requirements in terms of the specificity of the response.
The Damselfish most commonly mentioned as the 1st saltwater starter fish was the Blue Damselfish (or Blue Devil)
Within the Damselfish identified as 1st Saltwater fish, the Blue Damselfish (also called Blue Devil Damselfish) was the most commonly specified species, followed by the Yellowtail, 3-Stripe, 3-Spot, and Azure.
|Damselfish as 1st Fish||% of Time|
|3 Stripe Damselfish||6%|
|3 Spot Damselfish||3%|
What are the most popular first corals chosen for a new saltwater tank?
Here is a table with the responses to the question: What was your very first coral?
|Coral||% First Time||Coral||% First Time|
|Green star polyps||6%||Favia||1%|
2 out of every 3 new saltwater tanks start with one of the same 5 most popular types of coral. Those 5 most popular 1st coral types are: Zoanthids, Mushrooms, Leather corals (mostly Toadstool), Euphyllia corals (Hammer, Frogspawn, Torch), and Xenia.
What is your favorite type of saltwater fish?
We asked 200+ aquarium enthusiasts what their favorite saltwater fish was. This was a difficult question for many to answer–because they loved so many more than just one fish.
Here are the results:
|Fish Type||% Favorite||Fish Type||% Favorite|
|1. Clownfish||19%||12. Marine Betta||2%|
|2. Tangs & Surgeons||16%||12. Dartfish||2%|
|3. Angelfish||11%||12. Pufferfish||2%|
|4. Goby||7%||12. Rabbitfish||2%|
|5. Wrasse||6%||16. Anthias||1%|
|6. Blenny||4%||16. Grouper||1%|
|6. Triggerfish||4%||16. Boxfish||1%|
|6. Dragonet||4%||16. Cardinalfish||1%|
|9. Butterflyfish||3%||16. Damselfish||1%|
|9. Hawkfish||3%||16. Seahorses||1%|
|9. Lionfish||3%||16. Sharks||1%|
The Top 5 favorite saltwater fish types were Clownfish, Tangs & Surgeonfish, Angelfish, Gobies, and Wrasses.
Even though Angelfish were the #1 fish in terms of reports of either Successful or Unsuccessful care, they were surprisingly only selected by 11% of aquarium enthusiasts as their Favorite fish type, which made them the third most popular on the list.
Not surprisingly, Clownfishes were the most commonly reported Favorite Fish Type.
What specific species of fish is your favorite?
As mentione before, since this was an open text answer, the respondents could enter anything they wanted. The majority of the open text responses listed just the saltwater fish type, not a common name for an individual species, but when the individual fish type was listed, here are the top 15 Favorite Saltwater fish.
- Coral Beauty
- Flame Angelfish
- Yellow Tang
- Ocellaris Clownfish
- Marine Betta
- Regal Blue Hippo Tang
- Foxface Rabbitfish
- Copperband Butterflyfish
- Flame Hawkfish
- Yellow Watchman Goby
- Porcupine Pufferfish
- Clown Triggerfish
- Diamond Goby
What is your favorite type of coral?
When asked which coral type was their favorite, there were almost as many distinct answers, as there were aquarium enthusiasts answering the question.
|Coral Type||% Favorite||Coral Type||% Favorite|
|Hammer Coral||12%||Soft corals||4%|
|Torch coral including Dragon Soul, Aussie Gold||11%||Frogspawn including Gold Tip||3%|
|Zoanthids, including Rasta, Magician||10%||Acans/Micromussa||3%|
|Xenia||5%||Candy cane/ Trumpet||3%|
|Goniopora||5%||Green star polyps||3%|
|Brain coral including Diploria cerebriformis||5%||Bubble coral||2%|
|Acropora including Staghorn||5%||Mushrooms||2%|
The top 5 favorite coral types were: Hammer coral, Torch coral (including specific mentions of Dragon Soul and Aussie Gold), Zoanthids (including mentins of Rasta and Magicision), Mesmerizing Xenia, and Goniopora Flower Pot corals.
The biggest challenges that more than half of aquarium enthusiasts involved dealing with and fighting problem algae (30%) and getting water parameters to cooperate, get to the desired level, and stay there (23%).
What is the biggest challenge you have faced with your saltwater aquarium?
218 respondents answered the question: what is the biggest challenge you have faced with your saltwater aquarium? The answers were free text, but were aligned to these 8 primary areas:
|Fighting Problem Algae||30%|
What are the biggest algae problems they faced?
When dealing with algae-problems was the biggest challenge, 38% mentioned algae problems generally, 23% specified green hair algae was the problem, while 12% mentioned Cyanobacteria, 9% Dinoflagellates, and 9% Diatoms or Brown Algae.
|Algae problems||%||Algae problems||%|
|Green Hair Algae||23%||Bubble||2%|
|Diatoms/ Brown algae||9%||Chaeto||2%|
What were the biggest water quality issues they faced?
When dealing with water paramters as a top challenge, 29% were having trouble keeping the ideal parameters in balance, 29% were challenged to control high levels of nitrates, and 12% were fighting phosphates.
|Water parameter issue||%|
|Calcium & Alkalinity||2%|
While there was a higher likelihood that the water parameter issue was regarding Nitrates or Phoshpates, there was a very long tail of individual issues with most of each of the other water paramters (salinity, pH, temperature, Calcium, Alkalinity, Hardness, etc.).
There are a lot of coral care and saltwater fish statistics to digest in this article, I hope you found a few stats interesting and helpful for your own quest to master the saltwater aquarium hobby.
All the respondents in this survey were members of the Saltwater Aquarium Blog Newsletter Community. If you want to be a part of the community, join the newsletter and get a chance to take the next survey, you can join the group here.
If you are looking for other posts that are backed by some serious survey data, check out these other fantastic statistics and survey posts:
Aquarium Industry Statistics
Saltwater Aquarium Hobby Statistics
Ocellaris clownfish care guide
Six line wrasse care guide
What to read next
2022 Saltwater Aquarium Blog Survey