Traditionally, most people would say that keeping saltwater/marine fish is much harder than keeping fresh/tropical/cold water fish species. This is not strictly true.
The saltwater hobby does require more patience, more time and a lot more money, but the fish are not harder to keep.
With modern fish keeping techniques, saltwater tanks can pretty much run themselves if you have the right equipment fitted to your tank. There are reefers who claim they have not done a water change in months or years, there are others who do weekly water changes religiously. It all depends on the time and money you have available to put into you tank.
Depending on your aspirations, you can run a successful saltwater tank on a relatively low budget. For example, you can set up a smaller tank with just a canister filter, some decent light with a pair of clowns and few soft corals for under £300 if you wait for second hand equipment to become available at the right price, but if you want a 6x2x2 monster tank filled with tangs, SPS coral, and run on all the latest gear you would be looking at thousands, if not tens of thousands of pounds.
The same can be said for running costs, as small tank with a couple of pieces of equipment won’t make that much of difference to your monthly budget, you will have a slight increase in electricity, a slight increase in water costs, and you will have to replenish salt and food a lot less often than if you were planning on a big tank run on lots of gear.
Time. A big tank will eat away at your time. You have to spend longer on water changes, longer on cleaning your glass, longer on feeding to make sure everything gets it’s fair share of food. Everything will take longer with a bigger tank. If you don’t have a lot of free time as it is, stick to a smaller tank.
Some people will be reading this now thinking, everything I’ve read says go big, it makes it easier. Yes. It does. Confusing isn’t it! Big tanks are more forgiving than smaller tanks. Due to the larger volume of water, changes in your water parameters happen a lot more slowly, giving you more time to react appropriately. This means that the tanks are more forgiving towards a beginner who hasn’t quite mastered the art of keeping pristine water yet.
Livestock will have a big impact on how difficult your tank is to maintain. If you have just got a couple of reasonably hardy fish with some all but bomb proof corals, you will probably find you can’t go too wrong no matter what you do. If you are dreaming of that big tank filled with SPS sticks and overly sensitive fish then you will need to dedicate more time, effort and money into such an aquarium.
Every now and again I see people who say they run their tank on nothing but a canister and some good lights, and their tanks are beautiful! But, a word to the wise, these reefers are the exception rather than the rule. They tend to be very seasoned reefers who in all likely hood have been around the block a few times with tank crashes and diseases! They know what they are doing and as a result can get away with running such a tank. Most new hobbyists don’t have that experience and will likely fail without the proper equipment in place.
If you can’t afford the right equipment now, then start saving for it. I had to sit and look at a bare tank without plumbing or rock or anything for over 5 months before I could afford the plumbing to get the water in. First I saved for the tank then I had to find the right second hand tank (thankfully the tank came with a skimmer, reactor, heaters, powerheads and a return pump), then saved for the RO/Di Unit, then the plumbing, then the rock & salt. I had to do it all in stages because I wanted the big tank!
Sitting and looking at the empty tank did teach me one thing, patience. Even if I had had the money there and then, I still would have to wait for the cycle, then wait to find the right fish, then wait for my biological filtration to catch up after adding my first fish… This hobby is just one big waiting game. If you are a person with no patience, then maybe this hobby isn’t suited to you.
This hobby can be so rewarding, even in the early days. When you research your nitrogen cycle, then start watching it unfold in your own tank, honestly you will want to have a party the first day your ammonia and nitrites read zero on your test kits. I was so happy after sitting and looking at an empty tank for 6 weeks, the knowledge my tank was fish ready was the best feeling… I had done it right!
Something as simple as a couple of zero readings can bring such elation at the start, then you move on to stocking, which again is exciting. You add your first fish, a week later it’s still alive and you’ve still got those magic zero’s… Amazing! And it goes on, you’re constantly watching your tank grow and mature.
Every time I go to my tank I see something I hadn’t noticed before. I have spent countless hours watching my tank and even more researching and looking at other peoples tanks. It truly is a hobby that you can fully immerse yourself in.
Is it difficult to keep a saltwater tank? No, not really. It’s immersive, expensive, time consuming, but not difficult!