A starfish cleaning in the wild!

Saltwater Tank Cleaners

Utilizing saltwater creatures is one of the best ways to keep aquariums clean. Not only are you adding more interesting organisms, but you are also increasing biodiversity. This allows for an overall more stable reef. There are quite a few of these saltwater tank cleaners that will prove to be a great helping hand to a hobbyist that decides to add them to their tank.

Cleaner Inverts

The biggest category of cleaning organisms is invertebrates. You can add creatures such as snails and urchins to help keep your tank free of algae and detritus.

a snail cleaning detritus on the sea floorSnails are one of the most popular creatures of this kind. They are very cheap and there are lots of different snails that can be used for different reasons. For example, you may want to use the Cerith Snail for keeping you sand bed aerated while using Trochus Snails to manage film algae on the rocks or glass. You can also combine different kinds of snails to do the same task, such as adding both Nassarius and Conch Snails to manage the sand bed. It is important to make sure you know which snails are able to flip themselves over. Some snails can not, which means you will have to flip them over or else they will die. The Turbo Snail is an example of this. Although it can’t flip itself over, it is still very useful, especially for getting rid of hair algae. Still, you will want to be aware of the issue. Another thing to note about snails is that some can be unintentionally destructive. As long as your rocks and corals are secure, there should not be any issues. Snails can be a great addition to any clean up crew needing improvement or a greater work force.

Sea Urchins are something that are not in enough reef tanks. Pincushion Urchins are certainly one of the best. They make amazing dents to algae growing on the rocks. They are very easy to care for and fairly cheap. You often find them working at night to clear large patches of algae off rocks and glass. They are peaceful towards other inverts and towards other Pincushion Urchins. Not only are they extremely helpful, but their appearance is also unlike any other invert. If you don’t want one of these urchins for their great cleaning habits, you probably want one for their cool looks. These odd invertebrates should be a part of every tank’s clean up crew.

Crabs are another invert that could benefit a reef aquarium. Crabs, such as Hermits and Emerald Crabs, are scavengers. This means they will be constantly be roaming around your tank in search of leftover food and detritus. There is a large variety of crabs, as some may be extremely peaceful, while others may be a tank destroyer. This is where research comes into play. Be sure to research any crab or creature you add to your aquarium.

Tank Cleaning Fish

Algae can be a big issue in a reef tank. While scrubbing, doing water changes, and improving filtration is the best way to get rid of it, you can also use fish to help fight it off. Even some of the most popular saltwater fish are great for eating algae. Tangs are one of the most well known fish for this behavior. The beautiful Yellow Tang is just one example that will pick at algae on the rocks. Kole Tangs are another great option. Tangs are not a solution to algae, but they certainly help. They are amazing fish in appearance as well. If your tank is big enough, you should have at least one Tang swimming around in it.

Blennies are another fish that can help with algae. Lawnmower Blennies are most popular for this, but there are many other Blennies that can be used. Blennies are generally peaceful fish that have some of the best personalities you can find in a fish. They will eat almost anything from frozen food to flake food. Their long snake shape adds to the diversity of fish in the tank as well. You should note that Blennies will not get along with each other. Like other fish, they do not like fish that have a similar shape as them. I recommend only one Blenny per tank. Once again, Blennies are a fish that should be considered for every tank.

Saltwater pests have crashed tanks and caused people to leave the hobby. It is a great mistake not to dip every coral frag that goes into your tank. Sometimes, though, the pests still make their way in. Pests like Bristle Worms are not fun to get rid off, but wrasses can help kill them off. Once again, this is a double benefit, as you get to add another beautiful fish and control pests. You should understand that different wrasses will eat different pests. Also note that some of these pest eating wrasses are not just pest eaters, but overall invert assassins.

Using beautiful fish to control pests and algae is of the best ways to combat these issues. I’m sure you would be happy to have an excuse to get another fish too!

A tang being cleaned by a hawaiian cleaner wrasseFish Cleaners

While snails and urchins are great for cleaning algae off the rocks, the fish themselves could be cleaned too. Disease prone fish such as Tangs especially love to be cleaned. The popular Cleaner Shrimp is one of the best at this. It will clean dead skin and parasites off any fish that swim to it. It may even clean your arm while it is in the tank too! A lot of hobbyists get Cleaner Shrimps for their bright red stripes and long, flowy antennas. Can you blame them? No, but their cleaning abilities are another reason to add a few to the tank. You can have multiple in one tank, which means more cleaning will occur.

You can allow more fish to be cleaned by adding cleaner fish too. The Cleaner Wrasse is one of these cleaner fish. These fish are hardy and peaceful. The only downside is that they can be difficult to care for. They have very fast metabolisms, which means they need to be fed small portions throughout the day.

Another cleaner fish option is the Neon Goby. These little guys can be put in tanks as small as ten gallons. These fish are much easier to care and are very hardy. They will set up cleaning stations where they will spend most of their time. At these cleaning stations, they will clean any fish the lets them. Their bright blue stripes are what signals larger fish that they are cleaner fish. If you are afraid to try the Cleaner Wrasse but you still want a cleaner fish, you should definitely get a Neon Goby.

Micro Cleaners

Many people think about the saltwater tank cleaners that can easily be seen, such as snails and fish, but they may not consider the ones that are barely visible. Although they are extremely small, copepods can do a lot to help clean up detritus. Unlike snails or Hermit Crabs, they can get to the smallest holes and crevices in the tank and eat up detritus that could otherwise pollute the water. It is silly to look past copepods for their size.

The goal of a reef aquarium is to mimic the ocean as closely as possible. If the ocean has copepods, you probably should too. They increase the biodiversity in the tank, adding to the stability.

You can increase this biodiversity even more by adding phytoplankton. The phytoplankton will also, more importantly for you, consume nitrates and phosphates. The phytoplankton will also serve as a food source for copepods and corals. It is definitely something every hobbyist should consider adding to their tank regularly.

There are many saltwater tank cleaners and you can put them all in your tank to increase the overall health and beauty of your reef by keeping it free of algae and detritus. A reef tank would surely not be a reef tank without these hardworking cleaners.

40 thoughts on “Saltwater Tank Cleaners”

  1. Very helpful article. I am currently suffering from a massive algae outbreak in my 75 gallon reef. I’m now thinking about adding some phytoplankton.

  2. I have some more Hermit crabs coming for the hair algae on my rocks. I also picked up some snails. Nothing like a good clean up crew.

  3. I always keep a variety to keep algae from getting out of hand. I prefer inverts or fish before any chemical treatments.

  4. Snails, crabs, and conchs for the tanks with sand are all I have. They are able to keep up beautifully! If they struggled, my first step would be to reduce feeding.

  5. I always like to maintain a healthy “cleaning” crew. Variety of snails, crabs, fish (with jobs), micro brittle stars (hard to find), urchin is next on my list when I have a higher algae growth, copepods. Balance to the system helps me keep levels clean, corals and fish happy.

  6. My snails had babies… they are literally everywhere on the rockwork at night!!! They keep everything very clean. Add the Tangs and lawnmower blenny, great CUC!!!

  7. I lost most of my fish due to velvet earlier in the year. 4 months fishless through off some balances in my tank. I use to have a large pod population but no more. I’ll be adding more soon.

  8. Kathryn Harrison-Kaser

    I have been struggling with an awful outbreak of long hair green algae for the last few months. I am so grateful for reading an indepth description of how to battle this problem with live aquaria instead of chemicals. I’ve been doing huge water changes and hand picking the algae every couple of days! I can’t wait to order the Long Hair Algae Cleaning Kit. In the meantime, I’ve learned a lot. Thank you!!

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