The Beginner Guide To Clean Up Crews

I) What Is A Cleanup Crew?

Updated 2024

A cleanup crew (CUC) comprises a collection of invertebrates introduced to your aquarium to aid in the eradication of algae and detritus. The presence of a CUC is crucial as an excess of decaying matter in your tank can result in ammonia, nitrate, and phosphate surges, posing a threat to your aquatic inhabitants or causing an unsightly tank environment.

While a CUC can be beneficial, it’s imperative to familiarize yourself with the various members of the crew, their individual capabilities, and their limitations.

1) What Does A CUC Clean?

  • Algae – A diverse array of algae can flourish within a saltwater aquarium. Some types, like film algae on glass and diatoms during cycling, are common and easily manageable. However, troublesome algae varieties can rapidly overrun your tank and harm your coral. Different members of a cleanup crew target and consume distinct types of algae.

    Waste – Every living creature produces waste, including your tank’s inhabitants. Ideally, waste is swept into the water column and directed towards your filter. Yet, at times, it settles in substrate, crevices, or caves. Specific members of the CUC assist in agitating the sandbed and even consuming waste.

    Excess Food – Overfeeding is a prevalent issue among hobbyists, leading to elevated levels of phosphates and nitrates. If you provide excessive or rapid feeding, leftover food can sink or become trapped within live rock, eventually breaking down into ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. Regardless of whether your fish consume meaty or algae-based diets, certain CUC members aid in managing excess food.

    Deceased Organisms – Occasionally, fish and invertebrates may die. Ideally, prompt detection and removal of the deceased is preferred. Yet, instances can arise where a creature disappears unnoticed. Certain CUC members assist by consuming deceased organisms.

Flipper Magnetic Algae Scraper

2) Members Of A CUC

  • Snails – There’s a snail for every role! Some clean glass, others devour leftover food, some scavenge deceased fish, and others graze on nuisance algae growing on live rock. Certain snails can right themselves when overturned, while others need assistance. Some are sizeable with robust appetites that can dwindle rapidly. Our snail recommendations are provided below!

    Crabs – Among cleanup crew members, Hermit and Emerald crabs are perhaps the most popular. However, a word of caution is in order. If you’re keeping corals, be aware that crabs can nip at and consume them. Emerald Crabs are particularly known for this behavior. Personally, I prefer Hermit Crabs, as they’re easier to remove if they pose a threat to corals. Crabs excel at consuming leftover food and targeting specific nuisance algae types.

    Shrimp – Shrimp add an enjoyable element to the cleanup crew and efficiently tackle detritus. They eagerly pursue meaty aquarium foods and remnants.

    Conch – Omnivorous conchs are valuable for aerating and purifying sandy substrates while also feasting on bottom-dwelling algae. With their elongated mouths reminiscent of an elephant’s trunk, they can reach distant areas. Suitable for various tank sizes, they have hearty appetites and may require supplemental feeding in smaller tanks.

    Starfish/Brittle Stars – Certain starfish and brittle star species are excellent choices for the cleanup crew, although they can pose challenges in home aquariums. Sand Sifting Starfish maintain clean and aerated substrates, while Brittle Stars traverse live rock, consuming detritus.

    Urchins – Welcoming urchins requires secure cemented/epoxied aquascaping and sufficient hiding spaces. Many species are herbivorous, munching on algae across live rock, while others partake in meaty foods.

    Sea Slugs/Cucumbers – These options are solely for experts. While they offer visual beauty, their demise can release toxins, endangering everything in the tank. I strongly discourage beginners from considering them, and even I would refrain from getting one!

Python 2" Gravel Vacuum on a white background
Python 2" Gravel Vacuum

3) When To Add A CUC

Hold off on introducing a CUC right away. Wait until your tank has completed the cycling process and you observe a sufficient growth of algae. It’s wise to begin with a small number of CUC members initially to ensure there’s enough food for all. You can easily incorporate more later if needed, but the reverse is more challenging.

Now, how long should you delay? At the minimum, hold off until your tank’s cycling is fully done. Once you begin adding fish and supplying them with food, your bioload will increase. This uptick will subsequently lead to heightened algae growth and detritus accumulation. Numerous online companies offer starter packs tailored to your tank’s size, and your local fish store (LFS) can also be a valuable source of guidance. I’ll share my recommendations below.

II) How To Choose A Cleanup Crew

Pose the question, “What requires cleaning?” and use that as your starting point. In the initial stages of setting up a new tank, you’ll likely contend with fundamental algae concerns, alongside excess food and fish waste. However, over time, you might encounter specific issues that demand the involvement of distinct or additional CUC members. Here are some considerations to ponder when making decisions about your cleanup crew.

1) Size of Aquarium

For beginner hobbyists with smaller tanks, typically around 15-40 gallons, the number of CUC members required varies with tank size. Here’s a general guideline I follow:

For a 20-gallon tank, I usually initiate with 10 snails, one cleaner shrimp, and two hermit crabs. Out of these, five snails are herbivores focused on glass and rock cleaning, while the other five snails are detritivores residing in the sandbed to consume excess food and fish waste. Keep in mind, this is a starting point.

As an example, in my current 24-gallon aquarium, I maintain approximately 15-20 snails in total, along with one cleaner shrimp and one conch. I’ve omitted hermit crabs because my 24-gallon tank is dominated by LPS corals and softies, and I wish to avoid any potential interference from the crabs.

product shot on white background of HelloReef Saltwater Aquarium kit with large image of a clownfish in anemone
A Popular Beginner Kit

2) Bioload

When you’re new to this hobby, it can be challenging to gauge what constitutes a small versus a large bioload. However, as you gain more experience and begin testing your water, you’ll develop an understanding that a certain quantity of livestock leads to spikes in phosphates and nitrates. You might also notice more frequent outbreaks of nuisance algae.

Various factors contribute to your bioload, including fish waste, fish food, coral waste and food, anemone waste and food, and more. Nutrient buildup can occur rapidly in your tank. Therefore, I recommend starting gradually, allowing your filtration system time to adapt, and introducing only a limited number of livestock at a time. This approach enables you to respond promptly when you detect increases in phosphates and nitrates, maintaining better control over your tank’s stability.

3) Substrate

Your decision regarding a sandy substrate will significantly impact your choice of a cleanup crew (CUC). Opting for a bare bottom tank will exclude certain CUC members and restrict their ability to survive. For instance, Sand Sifting Starfish, conches, and several carnivorous snail species like Ceriths and Nassarius require a sandbed to thrive.

However, going for a bare bottom tank will simplify maintenance. Instead of fish waste and food accumulating in the sandbed, they’ll rest on the glass bottom. You can easily direct them into the water column and towards the filter using a baster or small powerhead.

In essence, a bare bottom tank is easier to keep clean, which subsequently reduces the size of your required CUC.

Fiji pink sand in 20 lb bag with close up of grain size
CaribSea Fiji Pink Sand

4) Nuisance Algae

Dealing with nuisance algae is an inevitable challenge faced by every hobbyist. If left unchecked, it can rapidly spread and cover your live rock. Hair Algae, Turf Algae, and Bubble Algae are common culprits, and finding CUC members to tackle them can be tricky.

For instance, Turbo Snails can help control early-stage hair algae, but as it grows, snails might become ineffective. Bubble Algae is another example – it proliferates rapidly, and no snail feeds on it. While Emerald Crabs are known to eat Bubble Algae, they might also target your corals, leading to regrets down the line.

The takeaway? Different types of algae require specific CUC members, but even then, it might not fully resolve the issue. Usually, a nuisance algae outbreak indicates an underlying problem in your tank, like overfeeding, excessive lighting, or a neglected sandbed. While adding the right CUC members is important, manually addressing the root cause is equally crucial.

III) Best Cleanup Crew For Beginners

Now, it’s time for the section where I provide you with my recommendations. While we’ve covered the diverse members of the CUC team, not all of them are suitable for beginners, and each category has its own array of species. So, let’s dive into it!

1) Algae Eating Snails

Turbo Snails

By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18264324

There are several types of Turbo snails, including Mexican, Caribbean, Chestnut, and Zebra. While they exhibit some differences, they share enough similarities to be grouped together.

Turbo snails are larger in size and are avid grazers, feeding on algae that grows on live rock and sometimes on glass surfaces. They have hearty appetites, so if algae supply is insufficient, consider supplementing their diet with seaweed or other algae-based foods.

One thing to note is that Turbo snails can’t reposition themselves when they fall over, so keep an eye out and help them flip back onto their feet as needed.

These snails can grow quite large and might unintentionally dislodge or damage stony corals, so exercise caution when placing them in your tank.

Trochus Snails

Slightly smaller than Turbo snails, Trochus Snails are also efficient algae eaters and possess a distinctive ability: they can self-right if flipped onto their backs. This feature is convenient and helps minimize the need for manual intervention. I’ve observed that Trochus Snails tend to spend more time on the glass, but they might not be as effective against nuisance algae.

A notable contrast between Trochus and Turbo snails is that Trochus snails don’t pose a risk to your corals or disrupt your aquascape. They’re not as large or powerful as Turbos, so you won’t have to worry about them damaging your tank’s ecosystem.

By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26149451
close up product shot on white background of an arch shaped human made purple reef rock
CaribSea Life Rock Shapes
product shot on white background of four purple pieces of dry reef rock.
CaribSea Life Rock

Astraea Snails

By Jan Delsing - BioLib.cz, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16311427

Another excellent addition to your cleanup crew, Astraea Snails are highly effective at keeping your live rock clean. They have a strong reputation for consuming hair algae, cyanobacteria, and diatoms, all of which are common occurrences you’re likely to encounter in your tank.

Nerite Snails

By TheJammingYam at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13557943

These small creatures are excellent for removing film algae from your aquarium glass. Despite their small size, Nerite snails can make a noticeable difference if you find yourself needing to scrub your glass frequently.

2) Carnivorous Snails

Nassarius Snails

By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81370914

These snails are among my favorites due to their impressive speed. Burrowing into the sandbed, they keep a large tentacle extended, ready to catch any passing food particles. These snails are excellent detritivores, aiding in sandbed aeration and even consuming deceased aquatic life. Keeping them in a home aquarium is straightforward, making them a valuable addition to your tank’s cleanup crew.

Cerith Snails

By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19036904

Much like Nassarius snails, Cerith Snails predominantly inhabit the sand, contributing to sandbed aeration. With their distinctive long spiral shells, they play a role in consuming surplus fish food, waste, and even algae.

Having multiple Cerith Snails is advantageous due to their slim, elongated shells, which enable them to access tight spaces within your live rock.

2) Crab

Emerald Crab

By Mark Loch - Female Mithraculus sculptus CrabUploaded by Betacommand, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11563870

In addition to various hermit crab species, the Emerald Crab is likely one of the most reef-friendly crabs available. Sporting an emerald green hue and measuring only up to 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) in length, this diminutive crustacean is recognized for its appetite for bubble algae and willingness to consume prepared meaty foods. Operating primarily at night, introducing the Emerald Crab to your tank may render its removal challenging.

Should the Emerald Crab find its sustenance insufficient, it may shift to opportunistic feeding, potentially targeting corals and other invertebrates. In such cases, supplementary feeding might be necessary.

Scarlet/Blue Leg Hermit Crab

By Andreas März from Darmstadt, Germany - DSCN7340_16zu9Uploaded by Betacommand, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11563957
By RevolverOcelot - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4051152

Certain hermit crab species can attain significant size and showcase aggressive behavior, often preying on snails and small fish. However, the Scarlet and Blue Leg Hermit stand apart due to their small stature and non-hostile nature.

These omnivores display an extensive diet palette, encompassing items ranging from hair algae and cyanobacteria to fish food and waste. Given their compact size, a substantial number of these hermit crabs must be maintained within an aquarium to effectively contribute to the CUC.

An important note of caution: It is essential to provide an assortment of empty shells in varying sizes for the hermits as they grow. Without ample shell options, they might resort to taking shells from your snails.

Chemiclean is an effective chemical solution to cyanobacteria

3) Shrimp

Scarlet Skunk & Blood Red Fire Cleaner Shrimp

Two red and orange skunk cleaner shrimp on a white sandbed standing next to a trochus snail with some purple coraline encrusting algae on its shell
By Хомелка - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25975372
By User:Haplochromis - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1998148

Cleaner shrimp make a delightful addition to your aquarium. Beyond their consumption of meaty foods, waste, and detritus, they possess the remarkable ability to cleanse parasites off your fish! Observing a cleaner shrimp hop onto a fish and diligently attend to its cleaning tasks is a fascinating sight. However, it’s worth noting that not all fish will readily tolerate this interaction, so be prepared if your fish don’t take to it.

In terms of similarity, the Skunk and Fire Cleaner Shrimp are closely aligned. The primary distinction lies in the Scarlet Skunk’s superior compatibility with members of its own species. Consequently, if you intend to house multiple cleaner shrimp, you could opt for one of each species or a couple of Scarlet Skunks.

Cleaner shrimp boast a relatively lengthy lifespan within your aquarium, and they will undergo molting approximately once a month as they grow.

A prudent starting point could be introducing one cleaner shrimp into a 20-gallon tank and then proceeding based on your experience.

4) Conch

By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17132281

With their captivating shells and vibrant demeanor, a conch proves to be a wonderful asset to your CUC. These active omnivores engage in sandbed burrowing, thus enhancing aeration. Moreover, conchs actively consume algae and detritus on the surface of your substrate as well as the lower sections of your live rock.

Although not known for their climbing abilities, conchs adeptly employ their razor-shaped legs to maneuver through your tank. They’re diligent feeders, often active for a substantial portion of the day, and might necessitate supplementary feeding for optimal health.

In a 20-gallon tank, introducing a single conch would be a prudent choice.

5) Starfish/Brittle Star

Sand Sifting Sea Star

By Nhobgood Nick Hobgood - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5740844

Numerous species of starfish pose challenges for home aquarium keeping. However, the Sand Sifting Sea Star emerges as a comparatively manageable choice, provided it receives sufficient sustenance.

Exhibiting an insatiable appetite for detritus, this sea star’s food requirements can deplete rapidly within a smaller aquarium. I would recommend considering this sand sifter for your setup if you possess a well-established tank accompanied by a moderately deep sandbed, preferably around 2-3 inches in depth.

Exercise caution, as this sea star might consume diminutive invertebrates such as snails. When hungry, it could inadvertently result in the loss of other members within your CUC.

Waste-Away helps break down detritus

Brittle Star

By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=369894

In contrast to their starfish counterparts, Brittle Stars employ their elongated arms to maneuver within an aquarium, whereas sea stars employ tube feet for a seemingly buoyant movement.

Functioning as proficient detritivores, the Brittle Stars encompass various species. They display a heightened sensitivity to shifts in water parameters, prompting me to advise their inclusion solely in more spacious tanks that have had ample time to stabilize over several months.

Primarily active during the night, Brittle Stars traverse your live rock, scouring for remnants of unconsumed food and waste. It’s essential to furnish an abundance of live rock, as Brittle Stars necessitate suitable hiding spots and resting areas during the daytime.

6) Urchins

Tuxedo Urchin

By Didier Descouens - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29948717

Tuxedo Urchins commonly feature hues of red and blue, with these vibrant colors being the most prevalent. These algae-eating creatures possess an insatiable appetite that enables them to thoroughly cleanse your live rock, standing out as highly effective agents in this task.

However, their efficiency can sometimes pose a challenge, leading to potential starvation. Their substantial strength can also be a concern. If your live rock is merely stacked and not securely cemented, you might awaken to an unwelcome sight of a disrupted aquascape.

Operating under the cover of night, Tuxedo Urchins diligently graze upon algae present on your live rock. If required, their diet can be supplemented with seaweed. For optimal care, I suggest a tank of at least 20 gallons, generously outfitted with ample live rock, with larger tanks being even more advantageous.

7) Sea Slug/Cucumber

By I, Marrabbio2, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2416061

It’s crucial to avoid purchasing any of these coral species. Despite their visual appeal, their potential danger is substantial. In the unfortunate event of their demise, they release toxins that have the potential to devastate every living organism within your tank. Therefore, although their beauty may be alluring, it’s essential to recognize that these corals are not suitable for beginners.

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