Before I had any experience with saltwater aquariums, I always thought they were much more difficult than freshwater. I know that others feel the same way, because anytime I mention I have a saltwater aquarium to people, their first comment is always, “Are they a lot harder than freshwater?”. This may surprise a lot of people who have never kept saltwater fish, but in certain situations a saltwater tank can be just as easy as a freshwater tank. There can definitely be more difficult setups, especially when you get into reef keeping, but saltwater aquariums in general aren’t necessarily more difficult, however they are more expensive.
Let’s start by looking at what is involved in setting up a basic setup for each type of system. Regardless of if it’s a freshwater or saltwater tank, you’ll need an aquarium, filtration, heater, light, thermometer, substrate, water, and decorations. The main difference is in the type of equipment you get. With saltwater tanks, the filters need to be more powerful, the water needs to be saltwater, and the substrate and decorations are usually a more natural set up as opposed to gravel and fake plants. All of these things can be purchased, and therefore don’t make owning a saltwater tank anymore difficult, just more expensive. (Many stores carry premixed saltwater which make it easy, or you could always mix it yourself for cheaper and a little extra effort.) For decorations, many people use live rock and sand, which actually has small living creatures in the crevices of the rocks that act as natural food for your fish. This can make it easier if you are unable to feed your tank for a day.
Maintaining a saltwater tank involve all the same things as a maintaining a freshwater tank. You should be performing water changes, scraping algae, checking equipment and livestock, and testing water quality. The only added challenge with saltwater is to make sure the new water being added to the tank matches the existing tank water, not only in temperature and pH, but also in salinity (the amount of salt in the water). There are tools you can buy to test the salinity, but if you use the premixed saltwater, it should be the same salinity every time. Besides having the water being saltwater, the maintenance for a saltwater tank isn’t much different than a freshwater tank. You even top off evaporated water in a saltwater tank with freshwater since salt doesn’t evaporate.
Why People Think It’s More Difficult
So why do people think saltwater is much harder than freshwater? It is most likely due to the cost of saltwater fish and supplies. Unfortunately, when people buy a freshwater fish for $2 and throw it in their tank, if it dies they justify it as a $2 fish and buy another one. Eventually either they’ll happen to get a hardy $2 fish that can take the poor water quality or their tank has stabilized enough to support a fish. With saltwater, there are no $2 fish. Many saltwater fish are $30 or more. If someone bought a $30 fish only to have it die a couple days later, they most likely won’t be buying another one and instead decide that saltwater is difficult. The truth is, if you are setting up a saltwater aquarium properly, they are no more difficult than a freshwater aquarium. If you rush in setting up your saltwater tank and add fish before your tank has cycled, you will lose fish just like freshwater.
I’m not telling people new to the hobby to dive into saltwater aquariums. I feel like before owning a saltwater aquarium, everyone should have some experience with keeping fish. Even though it isn’t much more difficult to maintain, overall freshwater fish are a bit hardier than saltwater fish. Since saltwater fish come from oceans, the water chemistry is quite stable where they are from which can make them sensitive to sudden changes. When you are first starting out, you may make mistakes, especially with water changes. When keeping freshwater fish, they are a bit more forgiving to sudden changes so it a good starting point for someone to become better at keeping fish. If someone already has kept fish in the past successfully and knows what is involved, making the leap into saltwater isn’t something that should be feared. Just with freshwater though, there are more complicated setups, so saltwater can be as easy or difficult as you make it. How about you, did you start with freshwater and work your way into saltwater, or are you still waiting to take the leap?