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Picking a Saltwater Cleanup Crew and Utilitarian Fish for your Reef Aquarium
Last updated on September 28th, 2022
Saltwater Cleanup Crew and Utilitarian Fish
A saltwater cleanup crew, also known as a “CUC” often refers to invertebrates with the primary purpose of cleaning up excess food, algae or other nuisances in your reef. Though this is the classic definition, I open the description up a little further and note, maintenance isn’t just for inverts anymore! Enter utilitarian fish! These fish naturally eat pests and nuisance algae, much like the traditional saltwater cleanup crew.
What does a Saltwater Cleanup Crew do in Reef Tanks?
As previously mentioned, saltwater clean up crews do exactly what the name says, they clean the tank. With that in mind, what's more curious is why most reefers immediately think about hermit crabs and snails when hearing “saltwater cleanup crew”. Though there are some inverts that are simply better at this than fish, I have found that some of the best reef custodians come with fins as well!
Many herbivorous and omnivorous fish in the ocean eat nuisance algae, and have coined the name "Utilitarian Fish". Yet, with the availability of these fish, we seek special invertebrates to clean up algae. A great example of utilitarian fish is the Yellow Tang. This beautiful fish is common within many reef aquariums, yet we still seek out alternatives for hair algae removal. Perhaps the tang is not keeping up? Maybe there is too much for the tang to handle alone. However, though snails can help, remember that like other aquatic creatures, they require food long term as well.
When we overstock snails and other invertebrates to remove a specific algae, you run in to a new issue. Many inverts only eat specific foods. If you remove all of the algae in the tank, your turbo snails will likely starve and die. They will then decay and lead to additional nitrates and phosphates in your aquarium, which will fuel algae growth again. Starting the cycle all over again.
What can help solve this endless algae cycle? Custodial Fish! Fish like the Yellow, Tomini, Kole, and other bristletooth tangs eat nuisance algae, and when it’s gone, they will eat the same food as the rest of your aquarium fish. Though it’s ideal to keep some invertebrates in order to keep up with the algae, selecting fish with intention will lead to less reliance on them as well as less die-off.
Common Saltwater Pests and Nuisance, and Who Can Help
When it comes to the reef aquarium, there are a number of common nuisances and pests that can be found within the tank. Chances are, you've already come across this at some point. Thankfully, there are saltwater cleanup crews that can specialize in the removal of these threats to your aquarium’s health.
Aiptasia is a small, generally agreed to be ugly, anemone found in saltwater aquariums. They spawn very easily and spread throughout the system quickly. Like many aquarium pests, once you have this, you likely will never be fully rid of it. Aiptasia will begin to grow in the overflow, sumps, and even in the aquarium plumbing. Therefore, it's best to keep a couple aquarium custodians around to keep it at bay.
Butterflyfish, especially the Copperband Butterfly fish, can be beautiful additions to saltwater aquariums! They're easy to find in local fish stores and are well known for eating aiptasia. The disadvantage, they are known to be very difficult to keep in the home aquarium. If you are lucky enough, or perhaps are willing to take the risk, this is one of the most beautiful ways to remove aiptasia from your saltwater tank.
Yet another very interesting species known to rid reef tanks of this pest. The Matted Filefish is currently my favorite aiptasia removal utilitarian fish, and what I keep in my home reef tank. They are readily available, low cost, and generally a very hardy utilitarian fish. My 2 inch long file fish can clear the aiptasia from a 120 gallon reef in less than a week while still eating along with the other fish. There are mixed results with this fish handling aiptasia, however I've had nothing but positive reviews myself. Not only is this little guy a powerhouse cleaner, but they're also fun to watch swimming around the tank.
Many mixed results are known to come from Peppermint Shrimp. There is a well known reason why some people have absolutely no success at all. This is because there are two types of “Peppermint Shrimp”, and one does not eat aiptasia. The all pink variation is not known to be of help removing pests from the tank, where as the pink and white striped Peppermint Shrimp are often much more successful at eradicating aiptasia from your reef tank.
A word of caution, though rare, I have personally observed these shrimp eating other anemones within the tank. I watched multiple Peppermint Shrimp cut tenticles off a Long Tentacle Anemone, and ate the tentacles one at a time until the anemone died. Therefore, learn from my misfortune and perhaps look toward a utilitarian fish to handle these pests before adding Peppermint Shrimp to your saltwater cleanup crew.
Green Hair Algae
Green Hair algae is common in the reef aquarium. This algae grows due to excess nutrients (Nitrates and Phosphates) present in the aquarium. The first step is to fix the actual cause of Nitrates and Phosphates. By fixing the excess nutrients, you will fix the algae.
Once you stop the source of the nutrients (usually over feeding or coral food), you will only need to resolve the algae that is currently in the tank. Letting the the saltwater cleanup crew maintain the algae growth for you.
Lawnmower blennies are peaceful, interesting blennies known for “mowing” green hair algae. They are cheap, available, and very hardy. They are fun to watch when they are not hiding in the rock work. They do tend to stay toward the bottom of the tank, on the rocks and sand, and are slower moving utilitarian fish.
Rabbitfish and Foxface
Rabbitfish, including the popular Foxface, are more active, and more colorful utilitarian fish than that of the Lawnmower Blenny. Similar to tangs such as the Yellow Tang, these fish are often found nibbling on algae on the rocks and walls of the reef tank. They are more active and fun to watch swim.
There is really only one negative, and that is that they are venomous. The spines on top and bottom of these fish are all venomous and similar to that of a hornet sting. If you are stung, run the area under hot water and determine if you need medical assistance as there are often allergic reactions to these stings. That being said, they generally, do not try to attack. If they are spooked or feel trapped they may strike as a defense behavior. When working in the tank, it is important to know where this fish is at all times.
Bristletooth / Yellow Tangs
Tangs are all known for eating algae, but some are better than others. Bristletooth Tangs, including most tangs with long, downward facing mouths, are especially good at algae cleaning. Some of the famous species for eating hair algae include the Yellow Tang, Kole Tang, Bristletooth Tang, and the Tomini Tang. Like all tangs, they can be aggressive toward each other, and can be spooked and stressed easily. Though the bristletooth tangs are much hardier than that of the powder blue and powder brown tangs.
One of the coolest algae eating species available! Urchins can be lazy, but when they're hungry, they are very efficient algae eaters! Things to watch with urchins include some species having venomous spines, and other species have venomous bites. Some urchins are also not reef safe. Though some popular reef safe breeds are not venomous, they still have sharp spines and may hide in rock work. So be cautious when working in the tank. Like any other creatures in this hobby, do your research before getting one for your home reef.
The all time favorite member of the saltwater cleanup crew for green hair algae. Turbo snails, especially the Mexican Turbo Snails, are champions of green hair algae cleanup. The downside is if you run out of algae for them to eat, they may starve, adding nutrients back to the tank. With their size, it is best to only keep one or two, depending on tank size, to prevent them from starving.
Green Bubble Algae
Green bubble algae is a harder green algae that looks like hard green bubbles that form on the rock work. You may have to remove some by hand, but if you are looking to prevent this algae from forming, in addition to managing nutrients, you can keep herbivorous fish. This includes many of those named above in the green hair algae section. There is one saltwater cleanup crew species that is famous for eating green bubble algae.
In addition to being very fun to watch, Emerald Crabs are often used to help clean up green bubble algae in the reef aquarium. The nice part is that they are omnivores and will scavenge for uneaten food when not cleaning the rock work. They do eat other algae as well, but not as efficiently as green bubble algae.
Bristleworms and Flatworms
Bristleworms can overrun an aquarium and irritate corals. They have small spines that can embed in your skin if you try to remove them, leading to a bad itch, similar to that of fiberglass shards. Flatworms can irritate or even eat corals. Though negative, they can also prove to help clean detritus and waste from the sand bed. You'll have to decide if they're causing damage or worth keeping around. Though they can be removed by siphon, natural predators will help keep them at bay.
Unlike bristleworms, flatworms don't have any positive role in a reef aquarium. When they die, they release a poison that can hurt fish and coral as well. Keeping natural predators around will help eradicate these pests before you even know you have them!
Six Line Wrasse and Melanurus Wrasse
Both of these wrasse have similar markings when small, but the Melanurus wrasse will grow larger and develop more color. These wrasse will naturally look for bristleworms and flatworms and make a snack of them. They are effective saltwater cleanup crew members and every reef tank should consider housing at least one of these wrasses.
Detritus and Excess Food
Though not always thought about, excess waste and uneaten food are often the leading cause of nutrient issues in reef aquariums. These nutrients, including nitrates and phosphates, can cause growth impairments in less hardy coral. It is important to have an effective saltwater cleanup crew to handle the waste before elevated nutrients become an issue.
I should note that most saltwater cleanup crew members are known to at least pick at detritus, though some are better at pulling it from different locations. Detritus can build on rocks, however it is most often noticed on the sand. You will have to pick saltwater cleanup crew variations to balance cleaning both of these.
Sand Sifting Gobies
Gobbies such as the Diamond Watchman Goby and the Sleeper Goby will sift through the sand looking for uneaten food, pods and other snacks. This fish is often referred to as the “cute” addition and is cool to watch the sand pass through their gills. They are known for burying things found on the sand, including coral. With their sifting methods, they are also known to cause some sand storms. This fish requires fine sand in order to be able to sift it through their gills and will likely eat with the other fish, meaning they can live even if the sand becomes free of food.
Sand Sifting Starfish
The sand sifting starfish is a favorite in the hobby as it both cleans the aquarium, and is fun to watch. As the name suggests, they are often sifting the sand bed for detritus. They may only be seen on rare occasions as they tend to live under the sand. Sand Sifting Starfish can occasionally be found on the glass eating algae, but this is not as common. The downside to Sand Sifting Starfish is that when they run low on food, or if parameters are not ideal, they will start to dissolve and die off. Due to how they frequently die off within a couple years, leading to more nutrient issues within the aquarium, they are not always the best choice for the home reef aquarium.
The horseshoe crab is a fun, interesting specimen that is a powerhouse of a sand bed cleaner. I think of these guys as the vacuum of the sand bed. They will push through the sand like a bulldozer picking up and eating everything in their path! They tend to live under the sand and will only be seen when they are cleaning. Though they are, in my opinion, the most effective sand bed cleaners, they have a fair number of disadvantages.
The first is that they will cause a large amount of sand to enter the water column as they clean. Another is that they do grow quite large. Up to about 19 inches in fact. This means you will need to have a plan on a new home within a couple years. The last of the negatives is that they are almost too good at their job. They clean so well that there is little to nothing left for other inhabitants to eat. This leads to them starving themselves and other cleanup crew members.
Cleaner Shrimp and Coral Banded Shrimp
Cleaner shrimp, including the Skunk Cleaner, Scarlet Cleaner, Coral Banded Shrimp and a variety of others, are strong scavengers always looking for a meal. They are often found within the rock work and not frequently found scavenging the sand. They will eat with the fish in your reef as well as picking through the rock all day. In addition to cleaning the rock work, these shrimp are also known to eat parasites such as ich from the fish in your aquarium. Though I wouldn’t put all my chips on that, it doesn’t hurt to know that they can, in fact, help prevent deaths and illness within your tank.
Reef safe hermit crabs, including the scarlet red, electric blue, orange, halloween, and a handful of other varieties are well known scavengers. They will clean both the sand and rock work. They are great cleaners with few downsides. The only downside to hermit crabs is that they are known to attack and kill snails and fellow hermit crabs if they are low on food or need a larger shell. To prevent this, avoid overstocking and provide a variety of larger shells.
Sally Lightfoot Crab
Like hermit crabs, the Sally Lightfoot Crab is a known scavenger, though it is not as readily available or as cheap as hermit crabs. These crabs provide a fun to watch members of the cleanup crew that is not as common in the aquarium hobby. In my opinion, a diverse crew is more fun to watch and keep, therefore if you are able, it is worth the additional cost.
In addition to green bubble algae, Emerald Crabs are often found picking uneaten food and detritus from the rock work. They are multi-factor cleaner that make great additions to the home aquarium.
Nassarius Snails are well known sand sifters that live under the sand eating waste. They will all rise from the sand when feeding the tank like a hoard of little zombie aliens and when they’re done eating, they will all sink back into the sand. They are effective at cleaning, and really fun to watch!
Hopefully this list of saltwater cleanup crew members and what they solve is helpful to you. If you are battling a particular pest or algae or interested in preventing them, check out the links below.
- Saltwater Aquarium Pest and Algae Solutions Guide
- Saltwater Cleanup Crew - Quick Reference
- Bare Bottom Aquariums
- Micro Bubble Scrubbing in the Reef Aquarium
Thanks for Choosing Reef Stable
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About the Author
John is a Software Engineer with a passion for saltwater aquariums, as well as the founder and president of Reef Stable. He started in the aquarium hobby as a child with a 20 gallon freshwater aquarium. His interest in aquarium life grew and in 2008, John set up his first saltwater aquarium.
Today, John maintains an over 300 gallon reef tank system, consisting of a 120g reef and a 210g reef. These large tanks are contained within the same system, sharing a sump as a means to reduce total maintenance and increase total water volume.
John writes articles for the blog as a means to learn about more reef aquarium topics. These articles act as a reference for the readers as well as himself. John updates these articles frequently to provide additional information or make corrections as new information becomes available.
If you would like to request an article, tank tour article, or to colaborate, let me know via the Contact Me Page!