Clean-Up Crew All-Stars

An aquarium is a closed system. As you feed your fish, waste builds up which is then direct fuel for nuisance algae. Filtration and water changes are the primary means by which we remove and prevent the build-up of that waste but there is also a more natural approach hobbyists employ which is a clean-up-crew (CUC for short).

The CUC is a group of invertebrates that are added to the aquarium with the specific purpose of helping clean up. A CUC consists of a variety of snails, crabs, urchins, and starfish that consume leftover food, fish waste, detritus, and algae. They are especially effective at targeting all those hard-to-reach areas of the tank that your typical filtration, maintenance, and gravel vacuum simply cannot reach.  

These animals naturally target algae and waste because this is how it happens in the ocean. Adding a clean-up crew replicates the natural food chain in your aquarium while also helping to keep the tank looking better and giving you some interesting and unique pets for the tank. 

Read Article: Cleanup Crew All-Stars Part 2: Functional Fish

Choosing An Effective CUC

When choosing a CUC, think of the three different zones of your saltwater fish tank that need cleaning: glass, sand, and rock. You must choose a variety of CUC invertebrates to target all three of these zones in the tank. In addition, some invertebrates are herbivores that eat algae, while others are omnivores and detritivores that eat waste and leftover food. The key is, pick a mix that covers all your needs.

Sand Sifters

A lot of fish waste and uneaten food lands on the sand. Sand sifting invertebrates eat waste on and under the sand surface. Sand sifters also turn over the top layer of sand, which prevents dead spots where uneaten food can rot and anaerobic sand can build up. The sand is oxygenated as it is sifted, which improves the sand’s natural filtration ability.

Algae Eaters

Algae eaters, when used in combination, can tackle lots of different algae from the green hair algae and bubble algae that grow on rock to the film algae that also grows on the glass. Many snails take fine algae from the rocks and glass. Hermit crabs graze short hair and brush algae. Urchins eat a wide range of algae including macroalgae and coralline algae, leaving rocks looking clean and new. Emerald crabs target bubble algae, aka valonia.

Carnivores and Omnivores

Carnivores and omnivores eat a wide range of waste and algae. Hermit crabs, most of which also eat algae, are excellent aquarium janitors that comb the sand and rock for every morsel of food they can find. Nassarius snails are great at eating uneaten fish food, which if left will contribute to nitrate and phosphate in the tank.

The clean-up crew reduces waste and nutrients, so they do not increase your bioload or reduce the number of fish your fish tank can handle. Pick a variety of species to clean different areas and substances in your tank. Do keep in mind that many aquarium invertebrates are sensitive to nitrates. So, if you have high nitrate issues you may want to do a series of water changes to lower the nitrates before adding the CUC, which will then help keep your nitrates low.

Popular Clean-Up-Crew Critters:

  • Cerith Snails - sand sifting omnivore
  • Fighting conch (Strombus spp.) - sand sifting omnivore
  • Nassarius Snails - sand sifting carnivore
  • Sand sifting starfish (Astropecten polyacanthus) - sand sifting carnivore
  • Turbo snail - algae eater
  • Pyramid snail (Tectus spp.) - algae eater
  • Turban snail (Trochus spp.) - film algae eater
  • Hermit crabs - red leg and blue leg hermit crabs are versatile omnivores
  • Urchins - voracious algae eaters
  • Emerald crab - Valonia bubble algae-eating omnivore