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Mark Martin on Cleaning - Wrasse v Shrimp
Mark Martin is Director of Marine Ornamental Research at Blue Zoo

We frequently get asked which is better in a reef tank—cleaner shrimp or cleaner fishes? The debate rages between cleaner wrasses and scarlet cleaner shrimp. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and I want to take a moment this week to outline each.

Cleaner Wrasses – An Efficient but Overall Poor Choice

The advantage of the cleaner wrasse is it will typically approach and clean larger fish that might intimidate smaller cleaner shrimp. The wrasses seem to also do a better job overall of keeping up with fishes need to be cleaned, You will observe them constantly darting from fish to fish and even getting into the gills of the larger animals. The big drawback is that after all of the fish are clean, one of two things happens. Either the wrasse becomes such a nuisance, cleaning fish that don’t need it, that the bigger fish will start chasing the wrasse away and possibly doing harm to the little cleaner, OR the wrasse will starve to death. The only cleaner wrasse we have seen that can readily be trained to accept prepared foods are the ones from Africa. The rest will perish if they do their job well.

Cleaner Shrimp – Spotty Efficiency but a Sustainable Aquarium Animal

A single scarlet cleaner shrimp can be placed into a smaller tank, or multiple cleaner shrimp can inhabit a larger tank. It is advisable to have only one cleaner shrimp per 75 gallons or so to avoid territorial aggression. Unlike the cleaner wrasse, cleaner shrimp will eat just about anything. This is a huge advantage over the wrasse, since, after the fish are clean, the shrimp will find other food to eat. This can also be a disadvantage; however, for once the shrimp get used to having food come to them in the form of prepared foods, they tend to get lazy and refuse to clean fish anymore.

And the Verdict?

All in all, I think the winner is the cleaner shrimp if for no other reason than the fact that they will live quite well in an invertebrate tank even if they have no parasite to eat. They perform a practical function as well…

…and they look cool to boot! 

Published 1 July 2008. © Blue Zoo Aquatics

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