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Can you handle a saltwater aquarium?

A saltwater aquarium can be a dramatic addition to any room. Filled with exotic (and expensive) fish, it’s visually appealing and a great conversation piece. But it isn’t exactly easy to care for. Before you invest your time, money and love for your little seafaring pets, make sure you can handle the responsibility.


Brightly colored saltwater fish are an appealing addition to your life and your decor. But a saltwater aquarium requires more care and maintenance than its freshwater counterpart. Are you up for the challenge?

What’s the difference?

When you’re deciding what type of aquarium to get, consider the type of fish you want. If your kids are involved, they’re going to want Nemo, but clown fish are saltwater fish and can’t be kept in a regular aquarium. Saltwater fish are often larger and more interesting than the freshwater varieties. But they require a lot more care.

Environmental factors

Marine fish are bred to live in the ocean, which is a vast expanse of water that’s unlikely to have rapid changes in things like temperature, water quality and other environmental factors. These fish just aren’t as resilient to change as freshwater fish.

You have to keep an eye on ammonia, nitrates, nitrites and pH for any aquarium (even just a fish bowl). That’s extra important in a saltwater version. For that reason, you can’t stock as many saltwater fish, as their eating and (ahem) elimination habits will change these levels quite frequently if there are too many.

Temperature is also important. A fish accustomed to gliding along in a comparatively shallow lake or river is used to having his water temperature change several degrees up and down throughout the day. It takes much longer for the ocean to experience such changes on a wide scale, and your fishies could literally die if the temperature changes a few degrees too quickly. You’ll have to keep their heater on 24/7 to properly regulate it.

Size matters

A saltwater aquarium should be larger than a freshwater one. They should be at least 55 gallons to ensure you have the best chance at maintaining proper temperature and chemistry over time.

You should also use a combination of mechanical and biological filtration devices. Mechanical devices will do a lot of the hard labor, but natural filtration (like coral) is more, well, natural for the fish.

The setup

It takes a couple of months to set up a saltwater aquarium. Once you have the hardware and mechanics in place, you need to allow the aquarium to stabilize. You can add damselfish to speed up the process by promoting bacterial growth, though some aquarists frown on that type of shortcut method.

You’ll have to test the ammonia levels every few days to get to know the cycles. You probably won’t be able to add fish for at least 40 days. You can add saltwater plants around day 60.

Choosing your fish

When choosing your fish, you have to be careful not to choose fish that don’t play well together. Sometimes, this means there’s an aggression issue between certain species. But it could also mean that more sensitive species may not be well-equipped to be in a tank with a fish that tends to stink up the aquarium with a lot of waste.

This can all be balanced by having the right filtration system, regular cleaning and keeping the right amount of fish. But the key to any healthy aquarium is doing your homework. Find out about their temperaments, their physical (chemical balance) needs and more. If you’re new to saltwater aquariums, go to a store that specializes in marine life and get the opinion of an expert.

You should also keep in mind that marine creatures (both plants and animals) are often more expensive than freshwater fish and plants. If one dies, it’s not always just a matter of you losing one of your pets. You may need to replace her immediately to keep the right balance in the aquarium, especially if she fills a tank-cleaning role.

Coral in saltwalter tankMaintenance is key

To keep your marine aquarium running strong, keep the temperature between 73 and 82 degrees F. Make sure you have the right salinity. Salinity refers to the amount of salt that’s in the water. The ocean is 34 to 37 parts salt per 1,000 units of water. You can buy a hydrometer or a refractometer at many pet supply stores to test it.

You should also maintain the proper pH, nitrate, nitrite and ammonia levels. You can buy color-coded strips to help you determine where your tank is.

Much like a freshwater aquarium, a saltwater aquarium has to be cleaned regularly. Uneaten food should be removed as soon as possible, of course. But they need to be cleaned more frequently, as well, and cleaning them isn’t necessarily as easy as cleaning a freshwater aquarium. When the water looks a bit dark and smells, you can probably just remove a quarter of the water and replace it with new saltwater.

But sometimes, you may need to move the fish to a suitable temporary tank to do a full cleaning. When they’re safely out of the way, you’ll have to flush the bottom material (rocks, plant life, etc.) with fresh water to remove any debris. It may take several cycles to do this until the water runs clear.

So, can you handle it?

Caring for a saltwater aquarium is, overall, much like caring for a freshwater one. But much of the labor is more intensive and must happen more frequently. The best thing you can do is research, research, research! Sea horses are much more difficult to care for than pajama cardinals. And don’t forget about fun additions like snails, shrimp and crabs.

At the end of the day, it’s most important that you remember these are living, breathing (water though it may be) creatures. They aren’t disposable. Take this responsibility just as seriously as you do owning a cat or dog.

More on fish

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Top 5 reasons to get pet fish
Why you need an aquarium filter

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