Tropical Fish

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Tropical Fish

Breed: tropical fish
Temperament: varies from passive to aggressive
Cost: $1-$1000 (per fish)
Lifespan: 6 months to 15 years
Maintenance: very high
Recommended for: experienced and dedicated aquarists

There are hundreds of species of tropical fish to choose from. Tank set-ups can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, but either way they will require plenty of work, and smaller doesn’t necessarily mean easier.

Tropical fish – Start with fresh water species

Tropical fishes come from either fresh or salt-water environments (also called marine). Some species are easier to keep than others, and generally, freshwater tropicals are easier to keep than marine species. Marine tanks may also include reef environments, such as live corals and anemones and these additional tank inhabitants are quite difficult to maintain.

Ideal fresh water species

Some of the more popular fresh water species include tetras, catfish, hatchet fish, pencil fish, angel fish and headstanders. However not all are easy to care for. Some of the easier care varieties are those that are hardiest and most tolerant of fluctuating water conditions such as the many forms of Australian natives, platies, goramis, barbs, and some varieties of catfish. These will range in cost from $7 up to around $40.

Difficult fresh water species

Species to avoid when starting up as a budding tropical aquarist include the Discus fishes, scaleless species such as clown loaches, ghost knife fish and elephant fish, plus aggressive predatory fish such as piranhas.

Ideal marine species

Some of the most popular marine tropical fish include yellow tang, clown fish, picasso triggerfish, bird-nose wrasse, cardinal fish, yellow-tail damsel, anthea and mandarin fish. Range in costs from around $7 to over $100.

Go with captive-bred fish

There are a few companies which now specialise in captive bred tropical fish. Captive bred fish may have a greater chance of surviving during packaging and shipment. The fish are already acclimatised to aquarium life, are accustomed to frozen and artificial diets and may be less demanding of the high water quality.

Purchasing captive bred fish reduces the impact on wild stock. Their removal from the wild, if done excessively, can directly impact on the environment, reducing breeding stocks.

Tropical fish selection

When selecting tropical fish, health is more important than the variety or even the colour. The fish should be alert and responsive and should have a symmetrical shape. If the fish is breathing heavily on one side and the gill cover is closed on the other side, it may be diseased. If you are buying your fish from a hatchery or pet shop, ask the owner if you can see the fish eat. If they are responsive and demanding with the food, it is more likely that they are in good health.

Starting out

Water quality, temperature, feeding and health are all significant factors when caring for tropical fish.

Firstly, the tank’s water conditions must be calibrated specifically to suit the species to be introduced and filters need to be cultured with appropriate organisms to assist with a suitable water environment. It is imperative to get expert advise from experienced aquarists. Find out what water parameters the fish were in and calibrate your tank accordingly.

In addition to a fine layer of gravel or sand, you may require driftwood, plants, corals, rock and other appropriate ornaments that replicate the animal’s natural habitat.

Tank Set-up – don’t start with too small a tank

Marine species are the most challenging to look after because they are less tolerant of changes to water conditions.

Many beginners think that starting with a small tank is easiest. However this is not necessarily the case. The smaller the tank, the less amount of water and the quicker it pollutes, thus the more frequent the water changes required. Buy the largest tank you can accommodate and afford. It will make your routine care less arduous.

A well-made tank set-up will cost at least $250. You will get what you pay for, and it is important to enquire as to who are the best manufacturers of tanks and filters. Set-up pieces include the tank, lights, two-stage filters, hydrometer, test kits, substrate, live rock, food and chillers. Anemones and coral may also be required. These live pieces can cost between $50-$200 additional each piece. Tank set-up can ultimately cost as much as a person chooses to spend.

Water parameters

Low water temperature is stressful to tropical fish. The best temperature range for tropical fish is generally 28°C to 30°C. Corals and anemones will also require specific water temperatures, some corals are more sensitive to temperature fluctuations than the actual fish. As well as tank heaters, chillers may also be required to ensure that the water isn’t too hot, especially during the hotter months.

Fresh water tropicals will survive in tap water as long as it has been treated, de-chlorinated and the pH adjusted.

Marine species will require ocean water – sourced from a clean and stable environment. Don’t collect water near storm water drains or after periods of heavy rain.

A pH kit is essential to monitor all tropical species. Some will tolerate acidic or alkaline waters better than others. It is essential to check what the best pH is for you species. Generally a pH of 5.0-6.0 is ideal.


When you purchase tropical fish, ask what they have been eating. If there is a specific type of food that they are known to take readily, initially feed the same. However in order to keep them healthy, you will need to feed a varied diet. Brine shrimp, frozen blood worms, white bait and prawn pieces all provide a good mix of foods. Brine shrimp can be bought from aquariums, as can blood worms. Bait and tackle shops can provide whitebait and prawns. Cut them into small bite-sized pieces before feeding.

Lifespan and cost

Lifespan depends on how well the fish are cared for, and how old they are when purchased. It can range from several days to 15 years. However, it is not common for the inexperienced aquarist to maintain fish for their full term.

Cost depends largely on the size and variety. Small fish such as tetras can cost a mere few dollars, some of the more exotic species will cost many hundreds of dollars. Rare fish will easily fetch over $1000 dollars.


Tropical fish will all have different temperaments, depending on their species. Many fish are schooling species, they require a community of the same species in order to thrive. These fish operate on the principle of ‘safety in numbers’ and will use their communal size and collective eyes to remain aware of impending dangers. Though they may prefer the company of the same species, many schooling fish will turn on their own type if they are new to the community or become sick or injured.

Many species are not compatible with other species and will either eat or constantly harass each other. When purchasing different species, check that they will match with their future tank mates.

Ideal owner

Not recommended for children whoa re expected to care for the fish on their own. Anyone thinking of keeping tropical fish should really start with fresh water fish and gain experience first.

Further information

We filmed this segment in Sydney with the assistance of Bevan Windell of Mobile Aquarium Care – 0418 283 775. Many large-scale tropical tanks are maintained with the help of a regular visit from a qualified consultant, who can assist with water changes and adjust water parameters. For details of tropical fish, tanks and equipment in your area, look under Aquariums and Supplies in the Yellow Pages®.