Cleaners in the Aquarium
As far as keeping cleaners in the marine
aquarium goes, results are decidedly mixed.
Some adapt very well to captivity, making
excellent additions to the aquarium, while
others almost never survive and should
be left on the reef. Let’s take a closer look
at a few of the cleaner species you might
encounter in the trade, with an eye toward
their suitability and long-term survivability
under captive conditions.
The Cleaner Wrasses
The various cleaner wrasses of the
genus Labroides are, perhaps, the most
recognizable of the cleaner fishes. These
cleaners exhibit the “typical” streamlined,
banana-like wrasse body plan and stay
relatively small, reaching only 3 to 5 inches
in adult length, depending on the species.
The aforementioned L. dimidiatus is the
best known and most commonly sold of the
genus, possibly because it has been shown
so often in underwater documentaries in
association with groupers, moray eels, and
other large, predatory fish.
Though all of the cleaner wrasses are
quite striking, I’m especially smitten by the
Hawai‘ian cleaner wrasse L. phthirophagus
with its gorgeous purple, yellow, and
black coloration. With cousins ranging
throughout the Indo-Pacific region, L.
phthirophagus is the only member of the
genus found only in Hawai‘ian waters.
Okay, now that I’ve sung their praises,
here’s the kicker when it comes to the
cleaner wrasses: They’re virtually doomed
to die in captivity. Labroides wrasses are
obligate cleaners, which means they feed
exclusively on the parasites and mucus
coating found on client fish. Even a relatively
large aquarium housing lots of fish won’t
provide sufficient feeding opportunities to
keep one of these fishes alive in captivity
for long. And no matter how hard you try,
you’re not likely to win them over to eating
standard aquarium fare.
And there’s another angle to consider
here, as well. Not only does purchasing a
cleaner wrasse for the marine aquarium
unnecessarily abridge the specimen’s
lifespan, but over-collection of these fish
can also eliminate those vital cleaning
stations that wild fish populations have
come to depend upon.
A blue-streak cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus services an angelfish; obligate cleaners that
cannot be sustained in the aquarium, the Labroides wrasses are best left in the ocean.
The white-banded or skunk cleaner shrimp Lysmata amboinensis.
A far superior option for the home
aquarium is the neon goby Elacatinus
oceanops, which hails from the tropical purchase a specimen without causing
Western Atlantic. This little beauty stays any impact on the wild population
very small, reaching only about 2 inches whatsoever. This species will also spawn
in length. It is an ideal candidate for the in hobbyists’ tanks, making it a great
reef aquarium or peaceful FOWLR tank, starting point for those interested in
is hardy enough to be a great choice trying their hand at breeding marines.
for beginners, and, with its black and Theverysimilarlookingsharknosegoby
iridescent blue striping, even favors L. Elacatinus evelynae (distinguished from
dimidiatus in appearance. In the aquarium, E. oceanops by the yellow stripe across
E. oceanops will help clean other fish of its face) is another great choice and has
parasites, such as the cysts of Cryptocaryon essentially the same care requirements as
irritans, but will also readily accept frozen E. oceanops. For those hobbyists looking
mysid shrimp, brine shrimp, and other for more direct interaction with their
meaty foods small enough to fit in its rather marine pets, both of these species are also
diminutive mouth. known to direct their cleaning behavior
One of the best selling points for this onto a hand placed in the aquarium.
species is that it is one of the few marine The only drawback to these gobies is
fishes that are routinely propagated by their relatively brief lifespan. Whereas
commercial breeders. Hence, you can some reef fishes can survive in captivity