It all began with Finding Nemo: the heartwarming tale of a father clownfish journeying across the ocean to find his child introduced Eddy Sy to the world of saltwater aquariums. “At first, it was just for [my] kids, then when I saw how beautiful it is and how relaxed it made me, learning to maintain the aquarium turned into a challenge for me,” says Eddy.

But in his first few years as a hobbyist, Eddy discovered that the stores and suppliers he frequented had little knowledge about aquarium keeping and were more interested in making a sale than in helping create a sustainable marine mini-ecosystem.

Given that saltwater aquariums are different from freshwater aquariums, he expected that they would at least know this—which they did, not all too often. Disappointed by the service, he sought instead to share his expertise and help fellow enthusiasts get value-for-money supplies and services. “The idea behind TB Marine Petshop is to bring together hobbyists and give them a place where they can meet and discuss and share their personal experience. At the same time, the shop gives all new hobbyists an alternative resource for them to maximize and enjoy their new hobby,” he says.

Animal Scene asked Eddy about the dos and don’ts of saltwater aquarium keeping, and what beginners can expect to invest in terms of time, effort, and resources.

AS: What are the common misconceptions about saltwater setups that you would like to clarify?

TB Marine: One common misconception is that it is hard to maintain a thriving marine tank. This may have been true twenty to twenty-five years ago. But with all the modern equipment and current expertise available, whether it be [through] the Internet or any reputable local marine pet shop, it is now easy and affordable to start and enjoy your own marine tank.

AS: How much time and effort goes into such a setup?

TB Marine: The most important factor in maintaining a thriving marine tank is to make sure that you always have pristine water. That is the secret of a successful marine tank. All [you’ll] have to do is to schedule a regular water change and control the load of your fish and corals. Changing natural seawater takes about five minutes to twenty minutes depending on the size of the tank. Regarding the proper setting up of your marine tank, I fully advise that you acquire all the necessary equipment and a proper filtration system to enjoy this beautiful and lasting hobby. The minute you do cost cutting and use substitute equipment, you will surely encounter problems and experience high mortality with your livestock. The time and effort you put in will definitely be worth your while when you see the final product.

AS: What are the special challenges of saltwater setups? What are the considerations beginners to this kind of setup should keep in mind?

TB Marine: Beginners should start with a 50-gallon tank or bigger. Large sizes are ideal for beginners, as these require a bigger filtration system and bigger and higher water volume, thus making the water quality become more stable. Also, make sure that you only buy healthy, quality fish. Disease will easily spread in an enclosed tank and will definitely kill all fish in a matter of days. Once you have successfully set up your marine tank, the biggest challenge is to control the urge to buy every single fish in the local pet shop.

This is the common mistake of all beginners: they overload their tank. Rule of thumb is 1 inch of fish for every 5-gallon capacity of the tank. For example, if you have a 50-gallon tank, your fish should only measure up to 10 inches combined. Fish are naturally territorial and need space to swim, hide, and sleep at night. For beginners, I recommend what we call the FOWLER setup, which stands for “Fish Only With Live Rocks.” You can graduate to a reef tank or corals once you’ve disciplined yourself with the proper feeding, water parameters, and ideal temperature for your tank. (Note: Live rock consists of dead coral removed from the ocean, typically with encrusted plants and animals attached.)

Stocking Your Saltwater Aquarium

Yes, there are plenty of fish in the sea, but not all species are ideal for marine tank environments. Zoologist and sustainable aquarium keeping advocate John H. Tullock suggests these simple guidelines for fish selection:

1) Choose fish that are small in size, growing no more than three to four inches at adulthood. Fish that have a maximum length of six inches at adulthood are also acceptable, but these should be the exception, not the rule.

2) Consider the types of feed that are readily available to you, and select fish that will consume these kinds of food.

3) Pick community fish, or species that are tolerant of having “tank mates”; Tullock notes that the best types of fish are those that remain docile unless threatened. Owners still intent on collecting fish that exhibit aggressive behavior should segregate these in their own tanks.

4) To liven up your aquarium, stock it with fish that possess bright coloration, interesting behavior, or both.

5) Buy only fish that have been legally and sustainably collected; a corollary to this rule is to buy only from reliable suppliers.

Eddy also lists a selection of fish and corals for beginners and intermediate-level hobbyists:

Best fish to blend with corals:

• Clownfish – Percula clown aka Nemo; Tomato clown, Maroon clown or Saddleback clown

• Tangs – Blue Tang aka Dory, Powder blue, Hawaiian Yellow tang, Purple Tang, Tomini Tang

• Shrimp – Cleaner Shrimp, Red Blood Cleaner Shrimp, Anemone Shrimp, Peppermint Shrimp

• Snails – Turbo Snail, Nassarius Snails

• Goby – Yellow Watchman Goby, Firefish Goby, Purple Flame Goby, bicolor goby or salaryas

• Angelfish – Pygmy Angel, Coral beauty, Flame Angel, or any dwarf angelfish.

Low-Maintenance Corals:

• Actino or Mushroom Corals

• Leather Mushroom or Devils Finger Corals

• Brain or open brain corals

• Cynarina Corals

• Soft Corals

• Sea Fan

• Zoas

• Bubble Corals (can house clownfish)

This appeared in Animal Scene’s July 2015 issue.