Stocking your first aquarium is exciting, pretty much the pinnacle of building the tank.  With that in mind, it's a careful process and your success hinges on stocking the aquarium safely. Before even shopping for fish or researching species, follow these 10 important considerations for stocking your saltwater aquarium and you will surely be ahead of the curve and improve your chances of long-term success. Not to mention the selection process will become easier because you can hone in on the exact fish that will thrive in your particular tank.  

1. Is Your Tank Ready?

Testing your aquarium for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate on a regular basis will help confirm the tank has cycled. You want to be confident the ammonia and nitrite levels have dropped to zero and that nitrates are present, indicating a complete aquarium cycle. It is possible for a tank to see a secondary spike in toxic ammonia and nitrite, so just double-check before adding fish. 

If your tank has a considerable level of nitrate or phosphate that stacked up during the cycle, that is not a bad thing. This means the tank is cycled and processing waste effectively. You just want to be sure that you do a water change to reduce those nitrate levels down below 5ppm before adding your first fish.

While nitrate is not directly toxic to fish at lower concentrations, it's generally good practice to keep nitrate under control at all times to help avoid a variety of problems that result from elevated nutrients. Not to mention, creating healthy habits like this is what will ensure your long-term success.

Of course, maintaining a stable temperature, pH, and salinity are critical to the health of your fish too.

2. What Are Your Short & Long-Term Goals For Fish?

Make a plan, not only for the fish you want to keep but also the order in which you will acquire them.  We do recommend you stick to hardy, beginner fish for the first go-around but you still need to consider compatibility. Some fish will not place nice together, some fish get too large; some fish just may not be suitable for the type of tank you want to keep.  

Corals and invertebrates also come into play here. There is a variety of fish that prey upon coral and invertebrates. There are some invertebrates that prey upon fish! Make a list of the corals and invertebrates you plan to keep as well. 

Once you have your livestock wish list, research each of the species thoroughly to educate yourself about their needs and requirements for aquarium life.  You will likely cross a few off the list. Ultimately, you want to be confident in your initial stocking list before even heading to the fish store. The worst thing you can ever do is buy a fish, or any pet for that matter, on impulse.  

3. What's Your Drip Acclimation Plan?

Drip acclimation is the process of getting your fish accustomed to the water in your aquarium.  While it's not going to be immediately necessary, educate yourself about the process and acquire the necessary tools.  This way your prepared and confident when the time arrives to finally add new fish into the tank.  There will be a future episode in the Beginner's Guide all about acclimation so just stay tuned, BRStv has you covered. 

4. Are You Prepared To Quarantine?

The process of isolating, observing, and medicating new fish when necessary is called quarantine. This does require a special quarantine tank and is a necessary process for saltwater fish tank owners.  We have two excellent videos (linked below) that cover the quarantine process and should answer all your questions.  The advice here, have your QT tank ready before bringing that fish home.

Watch Video: Should I Quarantine Saltwater Fish? 7 Essential Items for QT Success! - Beginner's Guide Ep: 32a

Watch Video: How To Build A Quarantine Tank and 10 FAQs - Beginner's Guide Ep. 32b

QT tanks in general are a somewhat controversial topic, or at least heavily debated in the hobby. Don't let yourself fall victim to those arguments and just move forward with preparing a QT.  Skipping this process will always result in some kind of headache and could possibly lead to the ultimate demise of all your hard work. 

5. What Are Your Emergency Plans?

This revolves around losing power.  If your house loses power, your fish will be in trouble without some sort of backup plan to supply power to your aquarium pumps or at minimum, have some battery-powered air pumps/stones on hand to oxygenate the tank during a power outage. 

An aquarium stays oxygenated via water movement.  When the power goes out, the pumps stop running so the water becomes stagnate.  Before long, the fish will exhaust all of the dissolved oxygen from the water and essential begin to suffocate if you don't take the necessary steps.  

Battery backups or a generator for your pumps is the most efficient approach, but also the most expensive. For smaller tanks and shorter power outages, you can use battery-powered air pumps with a bubbler stone to move the water and keep it oxygenated. Have extra batteries and test the operation of the pumps to stay prepared.  If extended power outages are a threat in your area, having a more robust plan is recommended.

6. Do You Have The Right Fish Food?

Alright, this one is indeed obvious.  Fish will need food, most of us know that. The advice here is to get the right kind of high-quality food and get a variety. Research the species you plan to keep and be sure you're supplying a high-protein, varied diet for optimal health. Some fish are more finicky than others with what they choose to eat. Those finicky fish do not fall into the beginner fish category anyway, so just stick to fish that accept prepared aquarium foods (flakes/pellets) and you will have a much easier time keeping them healthy. 

7. How Do You React To Failure?

Take it from us, we have helped thousands of people set up new aquariums for the first time and all of us were once beginners too. You are going to experience some setbacks and to some extent, some failure. Don't let that discourage you, this happens with aquariums and is part of the process. Everyone's experience with it is different and the most important thing to remember is to stick with it.

Algae happens, fish get sick, pests exist... it is how you handle these things that matter most. Learn from the experience and do the best you can to avoid those problems in the future. 

“Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.” - John Adams

Don't forget you have some of the most talented aquarists and helpful hobbyists just a phone call or email away, contacting our CS team is easy and if you ever get stuck, you can rely on BRS to help you through. 

8. Have You Created A Maintenance Schedule & Testing Routine?

Whether you are an organized planner or tend to wing it, having some kind of plan is necessary in this regard. Neglecting maintenance and testing is ultimately the path to experience the most failure.  Don't let yourself go down that road, not even for a minute. Plan the necessary time required each and every day/week to take care of the tank. Schedule some time to test and record water parameters on a regular basis. These are important steps to the long-term success of your tank.

Once you add your first fish, water parameters become immediately critical to the life of that animal, not to mention the need for daily feeding and observing of the animals in your care. Required maintenance also comes up fast so just be prepared and do your best not to neglect it.

9. How Many Fish Do You Plan To Add?

This is all based on how big your tank is, how big the fish get, and how aggressive they are (compatibility).  You will need to make this decision when researching the various animals you want to keep.

Always stock the aquarium slowly, you never should add more than 2 fish at one time, and always add them at least two weeks apart. This gives the beneficial bacteria the necessary time to adjust to the new level of fish waste in the aquarium.  If you add too many fish at one time or add them too quickly, the tank (and bacteria) may not be able to keep up, resulting in toxic ammonia and/or nitrite.

While it's ok to have more than just a couple of fish in your QT tank at any given time, you have to be patient when moving them into the display. 

10. Are You Ready?

Remember this is a hobby and you're doing it for fun. Soak up the knowledge, participate in the hobby on a local level, and make the best of it. Try to meet other hobbyists, get to know the folks at your local fish store.  All of this will help you to become a better aquarist and ultimately enjoy the process. Aquariums require some effort but will be rewarding, relaxing, educational, and fun all at the same time.