Wrasses are a well-known group of fish. There is one type in particular that has received a lot of attention from science and TV. These are the cleaner wrasse. There are five types of cleaner wrasse but the one most known is the common cleaner wrasse, also known as the blue streak cleaner wrasse (properly called Labroides dimidiatus). The blue streak is the one most commonly found in marine stores. The fish could grow to around 4 inches.
On the wild reef the cleaners have a particular spot to which other fish go in order to be groomed, for example parasites and dead skin are removed. The fish wishing to be cleaned can be seen waiting patiently for their turn. The wrasses are seen to swim into apparent serious danger with for example groupers, larger fish to which the wrasse would seem a tasty morsel – one quick gulp! But no, the groupers allow the cleaners access to their gills, mouth and body. Science suggests that it is the swimming motion of the wrasse that makes them recognisable and affords them security.
Science advises that on the wild reef the cleaner stations are extremely important. This has been proven by the removal of cleaner stations and keeping them absent in a known area. The health of the general fish population is monitored and has been found to decline. Once the cleaning stations are permitted to re-establish the health of the population rises again.
‘Aha’ thinks the marine aquarist, this could be useful. Wrasses are a fairly hardy group and if they are cleaners then they could do my aquarium reef fish good. Not so.
As with other reef fish once the cleaner wrasse is introduced to the aquarium, after a settling in period it will resume a natural living pattern. This means that it will treat the aquarium, or in a very large one a good part of it, as a cleaner station. When fish pass through the cleaner will swim up inviting the fish to be cleaned…. as it is an aquarium this happens over and over and over again. It could be that a fish or two will accept cleaning. However, after a while the fish in the aquarium will avoid the wrasse by swimming rapidly away either to show they haven’t any interest in cleaning or because the continued attention of the wrasse is an irritant. The wrasse does not gain any food or certainly insufficient.
Another idea sometimes arises with an aquarist. As the wrasse deals with parasites perhaps the presence of one is a guarantee against for example white spot. Not a guarantee that it will not occur but that it will be dealt with if it does. Unfortunately again not so, it seems that the wrasse does not deal with these types of parasite. In fact the cleaner is liable to succumb to the outbreak in the same way as the other fish unless the aquarist is successful in eradication efforts.
So there isn’t any point in keeping a cleaner wrasse for cleaning purposes. However a cleaner wrasse is attractive maybe it would be a good addition to the aquarium just as a fish. There is the potential problem that other fish could be irritated by the cleaner, as already said. However the major problem is with nutrition.
There are some fish that are definitely hit and miss with feeding. For example the beautiful copperband butterfly (Chelmon rostratus) has caused many an aquarist severe frustration as it refuses food which is perfectly acceptable to other types. Sometimes these fish do feed but very many times not, they starve and the beautiful fish is lost. This is so with the cleaner wrasse. With the clear lack of food available in a natural way the fish faces starvation. On the reef the fish could deal with very many cleaned fish in a day, gaining nutrition from each one. It could be that in the aquarium the cleaner will take artemia, flake or frozen fare. At the same time it may not and will die. An aquarist shouldn’t want to take a chance with this. Advanced aquarists maybe would to see if a method of dependable feeding can be found, but most aquarists not. So overall the fish is best left on the wild reef.
Here’s a picture of the blue streak cleaner fish, then run a series of extra pictures by clicking to the right: