How to Select a Healthy Saltwater Fish

Here are some characteristics of healthy marine fish:

  • Their colors are bright.
  • They search actively for food.
  • Their fins are held erect.

Follow these tips to avoid taking home unhealthy saltwater fish:
  • Watch out for rapid movement of the gill covers (“panting” or “gasping”). This could indicate that the
    fish is infested with parasites.
  • Beware of ragged fins and the presence of lesions, open wounds, or similar abnormalities. Fish can lose a bit
    of fin tissue or a scale or two without serious consequences, but any damage should appear to be healing.
  • No bloodiness or cottony fungal growth should be
  • Unless the behavior is characteristic for the species, a fish that hides excessively is in some kind of distress.
  • Look for signs of poor nourishment, such as a hollow belly or a thinning of the musculature behind the head.
  • When viewed head on, the fish should be convex in outline, not concave. Ideally, the dealer will quarantine all new arrivals for at least a week before releasing them; two weeks would be better. If this is not the routine at the store you select, the dealer should at least be willing to hold a fish for you if you agree to buy the fish after the holding period is up. Saltwater fish have a harrowing journey from the reef to the dealer. They require a period of rest and adjustment before yet another move. A few days, or just until the fish has had its first meal, is not enough time for recovery. If the dealer cannot, or will not, provide this kind of quarantine period, you should make plans well in advance to quarantine all specimens at home yourself. I suggest a minimu quarantine of one week.

NOTE: The usual advice is to look for obvious signs of disease when shopping for saltwater fish. This is a good suggestion, but only a very foolish, or very busy, dealer will leave a sick fish in the display tanks. The problems you may encounter will be of a more subtle nature. How was the fish collected? What has happened to it since that time? How has the dealer cared for the fish after its arrival? Neither you nor the dealer will have reliable information on any but the third question.

Marine fish quarantine, either by the dealer or by you, offers the best option for avoiding trouble once the fish enters your display aquarium. Another recommendation often given is to ask to see the fish eat before you purchase it. Of course, a prospective fish should be willing to eat, but this is no guarantee of its health. A mishandled fish can experience delayed mortality even though it may feed normally. Quarantine will help to assure any latent problems develop away from the main tank.

Making Rational Purchasing Decisions
Why, I am often asked, are saltwater fish so expensive? Fish and invertebrates are commodities to the aquarium shop. Every dealer has to make a living. But can a fish really be worth $300?
Many factors affect the retail price of saltwater aquarium fish. These include the species, source, size of the
store, geographic location of the store, nature of the store’s competition, and operating costs. My only advice is this: do not shop for price alone.

I urge extreme caution. A cheap fish is no bargain if it only lives a week or two after you take it home. Once
you find a dealer that consistently provides you with good-quality fish, your best bet is to support that dealer
with your business, even if a particular specimen is a few dollars less across town.

Five Rules for Buying Saltwater - Marine Fish

1. Know your dealer.
2. Know which fish come from what area of the world.
3. Be aware of problems with fish from certain areas.
4. Learn to recognize the signs of poor health.
5. Don’t shop only for price.


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