Having the right clean up crew in your saltwater aquarium can actually make life easier for you, or cause a headache if you don’t choose right.


Your most important saltwater aquarium inhabitants are often the smallest…


But, there are so many marine species to choose from, how do you choose the right ones that will clean your tank but not cause problems for your marine fish or corals?

aquarium clean up crew

Red Hairy Legged Hermit Crabs are excellent saltwater tank scavengers (photo credit: Richard Ling)

Assembling a clean-up crew is the purposeful selection of various saltwater aquarium species that make themselves very useful by:

  • Grazing on pest algae.
  • Consuming uneaten food, that otherwise would breakdown into nitrogenous waste.
  • Sifting and aerating sand for food morsels; thus minimising the need to vacuum the base layer.
  • Cleaning the glass of algae and the like.
  • Feeding on and processing of detritus.

But this list doesn’t contain the only benefits these creatures give your saltwater tank. These invertebrates and fish species add personality to your tank, many are colorful and interesting to watch, they also help to complete your tank eco-system and aid your filtration system by breaking down waste naturally.

A lot of aquarium writers state that these tank janitor species should be some of the first you add to your tank; this is not so.

Wait until your tank is established and already is housing quite a lot of the key species you intend to keep. The reason for this is that now there will be plenty of food for your clean up crew to thrive on when you add them in at this later stage. This way they wont starve or try and pick off some of the pets you already have.

aquarium clean up crew

Nudibranchs (Sea Hares) are some of the most stunning janitors. But take care to select one that doesn’t prefer colder water (photo credit: Jan Messersmith)

Saltwater Aquarium Clean Up Crew Tips:


  1. The best source of clean up crew members is live rock or live sand.
  2. Larger sand sifting species like big Starfish or Shrimp Gobies will sift out all the sands beneficial organisms you want to keep.
  3. It’s easy to make bad tank janitors choices based on what you may get told, do you own research.
  4. Don’t choose species that will eventually starve when all suitable food is cleaned up.
  5. Don’t choose species that don’t have suitable habitats in your tank.
  6. Don’t chooses species that will prey on whatever you currently have and conversely are likely to get eaten by your pets.
  7. Don’t choose those species who will reproduce uncontrollably or are to large in population size.
  8. Don’t choose species that will cause a problem in your tank; research a few sources first.
  9. If you keep Triggerfish, Parrotfish, Filefish, Pufferfish or Boxfish your clean up crew may become a snack.
  10. If you treat your tank with copper it will kill all your invertebrate clean up crew members.


tank janitors

The pistol shrimp has a sonic blast to ward off predators but also is a highly recommended cleaner, (photo credit Flickr.com)

 Which tank janitors should you get or avoid?


Hermit crabs are good choices because they are true scavengers, where most other crabs, shrimp and lobsters are omnivores and will go for most available “meat” such as anemones or corals. Small, active Hermits like red or white hairy-legged are most popular. Blue or red legged hermits are also good.

Pistols shrimps like the one pictured above are  very efficient scavengers and most importantly are reef safe.

Many snails simply will not do it because they get too large, are from sub-tropical waters  so will slowly cook in your tropical tank,  also pointed shell varieties have a habit of falling over and getting wedged in rockwork only to die! Good choices are Turbo snails, Cerith and Astrea snails. Other helpful molluscs are  Queen conches, Chitons , Limpets and Cowries.

Sea Hares (Nudibranchs) are stunning but most species prefer cold water and will slowly die in tropical conditions, releasing toxins along the way.

Sea Cucumbers are cool but as one of my Facebook fans mentioned to me they can die hidden away behind your rockwork and release nasty chemicals that kill other organisms as they die. They also can deploy toxic/stinging innards when disturbed that can damage your other pets and cause nasty water pollution.

Brittlestars and Starfish; the big ones will sift out all of your other tiny beneficial organisms from your sand bed/live rock and fast! A lot of research is needed to find a species that will suit your tank, but the best bet is to go for smaller species that feed on detritus (called microphagous) for example Asterina anomal, Fromia and Linckia starfish and many smaller varieties of bristle stars such as the mini bristle starfish.

Marine worms;  just like in the garden these organisms can be some of the most helpful around. Almost every worm you see will be beneficial (except for large notorious Bristle/Fireworms which are predators). Good ones are Peanut worms, Spaghetti worms and hair worms. These are common on live rock but can also be purchased commercially.

Sea Urchins. Most spiny varieties have spines that are actually poisonous to you and your pets and are very good at scraping off all your encrusting algae. If you need help removing excess pest algae go for a smaller club-spike variety such as the Blue Tuxedo Urchin.

Last but not least are helpful marine fish. Brown  Scopas Tang; best for larger reefs. As well as Gobies like the Shrimp Goby  are good for sifting (but can decimate live sand) and of course the Ubiquitous Lawnmower Blennie mows down algae like nobody’s business.

Remember a good clean-up crew will and can never replace a regular maintenance schedule; it will merely provide you some assistance and some entertainment as you enhance your eco-system using nature!

saltwater aquarium clean up crew

The Scopas Tang, is a fantastic reef safe fish that eats a ton of pest algae!

If you have enjoyed my article and you would like my free eBook “Minimizing Disease In Your Saltwater Aquarium” as well as my proven “9 Saltwater Aquarium Success Tools” to get your tank optimally thriving simply click this link.
Saltwater Aquarium Advice Scientist



Andrej Brummer

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