Garibaldi Fish – A Complete Guide (Care, Diet, Facts)

The Garibaldi is among the most visually striking fish that any salt-water tank owner can keep. They are relatively large in size, with a round, powerful build, and an orange-gold coloration that catches the eye from any angle. They will often be the first fish that snorkelers and scuba divers in California and northern Mexico will see upon entering the water, as they weave through kelp forests, rocky reefs, and the sandy sea floor. This is due to both the fish’s colors, which contrast sharply against the ocean environment, and their fearless personalities.

The Garibaldi is California’s state marine fish, a status is acquired in 1995 as a means of protecting the species from overfishing and capture by aquarium enthusiasts. The Garibaldi’s numbers in the wild are relatively strong, thanks to the many protected areas along the California coast, including Catalina Island, the Channel Islands, and Monterey Bay.

Saltwater aquarium keepers value the garibaldi for its bright colors and bold, active behaviors, which give it high visibility in even very large tanks. Because it is a relatively large fish, however, it tends to be difficult to keep in captivity, and is recommended for expert tank owners only.

They are illegal to keep in a home aquarium in the state of California. For residents of other states, you may only be able to find them through specialty dealers and collectors, as even well-equipped aquatic pet stores may find the Garibaldi challenging to keep.


History of the Species

Garibaldi fish were named for Italian general and revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. He was a lifelong soldier who dedicated his later military career to the unification of Italy. His standard was to forego the traditional military uniform in favor of bright red or crimson tunics, which themselves became known as garibaldini. It is this tunic that lent the Garibaldi fish its name.

Color alone is not the only detail the Garibaldi shares with its Italian namesake. Garibaldi are a highly territorial fish, claiming and guarding preferred nesting sites on rocky reefs and kelp beds. They will aggressively defend their turf against any intruders, including swimmers and divers. Many a snorkeler or scuba diver can report being aggressively charged by these combative, fearless animals. Divers will sometimes hear a thumping or clacking sound as the Garibaldi warns them away. They can also be seen attacking fish much larger than themselves, including sheephead, sea bass, and grouper.

This fearless attitude made it easy for divers to approach and capture them, and in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the population in California began showing signs of decline. As such, in 1996, a bill was passed which prohibited commercial trade of garibaldi, thus making it very difficult for salt-water tank owners to obtain them.

Garibaldi in the Wild

The Garibaldi is a member of the damselfish family, which explains its trademark aggression. Juveniles will sometimes swim together, and adult territories may occasionally overlap, but they are a solitary fish, and show no schooling tendencies. Males and females are sexually dimorphic. Adult males grow to be slightly larger, and the front of their heads will have a notable lobe growing from it.

Males guard their egg nest in the wild, and display more aggression than female garibaldi. Males spend time sweeping and grooming the nest area in preparation for females to select an ideal place for their eggs. To entice the female, the male will approach her, and make clucking sounds.

Females can lay up to 80,000 eggs during their spawning season, which occurs in March through July,. Males stay with the eggs, and will even eat those that are not developing correctly. This encourages other females to lay theirs nearby, especially if the existing set of eggs is recent. Both are territorial, however, and will be aggressive towards other fish in a home aquarium.

No garibaldi have successfully spawned in captivity. Due to the difficulty of keeping them with other fish, and the size of the territory required by just one fish, home aquarium owners are discouraged from trying. Both the non-existent rate of success, as well as the stress on both fish and owner, make attempts at breeding a fool’s errand.

Garibaldi Apperance

Their bright orange colors will make them likely the most visible addition to any home aquarium. Individuals make exhibit hues that range from reddish to gold, but any will provide a flash of color in nearly any aquarium setup.

Their large eyes are equally noticeable, with a bright yellow outline surrounding a black inner disc. Garibaldi have a single row of teeth inside their somewhat narrow mouth.

A long, low dorsal fin runs along the length of the garibaldi’s spine, rising just above the tail in a high, sweeping angle. The tail fins of juvenile garibaldi have a notch in them halfway down, and the top and bottom of the tail fins are pointed. In adults, the tail fins become rounded on the top and bottom. Their pelvic and anal fins sweep along the body in shapes similar to the dorsal fin, giving a delicate appearance that balances with the garibaldi’s muscular form. When seen in profile, this also provides a hint of vertical symmetry.

Maturation From Juvenile to Adult

Juvenile garibaldi fish are perhaps more striking than their adult counterparts. In addition to their fin shapes being more dramatically angled and pointed, their bodies feature a number of electric blue dots along their scales. The fringes of their fins can also be lined with the same electric, luminous blue color, which only adds to the fish’s striking presence. A black spot can also be found near the base of the young garibaldi’s tail fin

Once they reach about 2 inches in length, the young garibaldi begin to lose the blue color from the edges of their fins. At roughly 6 inches, their blue markings will begin to fade as well. Fish below 6 inches, and younger than 5-6 years, are considered juvenile. Fishing exceeding this length are sexually mature, and capable of reproduction.

The adult male garibaldi can grow to 15 inches in length, with females reaching a slightly slower and lighter maximum size. A common weight for a full-grown adult is around 2 pounds. In the wild, they have been reported to live for 25 years, but 13-15 years is more common. In captivity, 12 years is a commonly reported lifespan.

Garibaldi Diet

While its aggressive temperament towards intruders into its territory is well-known, the Garibaldi is not a highly active predator. It prefers to take its food from the sea floor, eating invertebrates such as sea sponges, worms, and nudibranchs. Occasionally, this diet will include crabs, shrimp, juvenile lobster, and other arthropods. They can be omnivorous, and will also feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton. Up to half of their diet can consist of plant matter, but it is not necessary.

Marine aquariums, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, maintain a population of garibaldi in their kelp forest exhibit. These are given meals of shrimp, crab, and a mix of phytoplankton and zooplankton taken from the waters just outside the aquarium.

Home salt-water tank owners should consider this when they are planning to acquire a garibaldi. Most meaty food mixes will be sufficient, but the garibaldi will be happiest if also allowed to forage for itself as well, as it would in the wild. Flaked foods can also be used as well, as these will often be designed to guarantee proper nutrition for most carnivorous fish species. Providing food twice a day should be sufficient to ensure the garibaldi’s health and development.

Garibaldi Health

Most damselfish are hardy individuals, and the garibaldi is no exception. Few issues will present challenges to experienced salt-water tank owners, provided that a stable, stress free environment can be maintained in the tank.

The garibaldi is a very active swimmer and feeder, so any changes in their level of activity or eating may be an indication of health problems, such as the presence of a parasite, a respiratory or gill issue, or a problem with scale health. These include Marine Velvet and Marine Ich, common tank parasites that develop in other species, or in water that is not properly treated.

Consult with a veterinarian who specializes in marine life, or consider contacting marine parks or public aquariums should something appear amiss with your garibaldi.

Aquarium Setup

Garibaldi are coral-safe fish, meaning they do not consume live coral, nor should they degrade the environment. It is highly recommended that owners keep live rock in their tanks, along with an assortment of other objects and plants that might form the sort of terrain found in their natural reef habitat.

This might include small rocks, rocks that have openings large enough for them to swim through, natural or fabricated caves. Green vegetation is also useful for them, especially that which can grow vertically through the levels of your tank and mimic the kelp forests that form their home in the waters of southern California.

Despite their bright colors, they are not a tropical fish. Due to their deep water preferences, they can, however, withstand a wide range of temperatures. Experts recommend between 64 and 75 degrees, but they can manage temperatures as high as 79 degrees. In celsius, this is between roughly 18 and 24 degrees.

A pH balance between 8.0 and 8.4 is suitable. Salinity between 1.02 and 1.025 is ideal. Carbonate hardness should be kept between 8 and 12.

Their general hardiness allows them to tolerate nearly any type of water flow. Tanks should be moderately lit, but owners can cycle to full sunlight without bothering the garibaldi.

Tank size is one reason that garibaldi are considered to be suited for experts. They require a minimum of 100 gallons, with some recommendations of 180 gallons minimum. This is a very high volume tank for most homes, so consider both the dimensions and time it takes to care for an aquarium of this size.

Garibaldi Temperament

Because they are highly aggressive, they should not be kept with other garibaldi. Only moderate to aggressive fish will co-exist well with garibaldi in a home tank. More passive individuals may be bullied, or even attacked and killed, by the garibaldi.

Semi-aggressive tank mates will fare best with your garibaldi. This might include large Angelfish, parrotfish, groupers, tangs, or even sharks and rays.

Garibaldi Ownership

The Garibaldi will be known to anyone who has scuba dived or snorkeled in the Pacific Ocean waters off Southern California and Mexico, thanks to its bright coloration and boldness. Juvenile garibaldi are all the more apparent, thanks to the electric blue markings along their bodies and fins.

Home aquarium owners may be drawn to the garibaldi for these reasons. Additionally, they are a healthy, and fairly long-lived fish, with a lifespan of between 12 and 25 years. However, their aggressive disposition and size make them a fish for confident and experienced tank owners only.

Furthermore, the Garibaldi is California’s State Marine fish, and as such, is protected against capture and trade in California. It is illegal to own one in a home aquarium in the state  . Residents of other states will need to look to specialty dealers and aquatic pet stores to procure them. They may cost upwards of $150 to buy.

Challenges and Rewards

At a size of up to 15 inches in length, they are among the bigger fish available for salt-water aquariums. A minimum tank volume of 100 gallons is suggested, with 180 gallons considered more suitable for them, especially with other species.

They are coral-safe, and enjoy a variety of terrain and features in their tank. Aquarium owners who like the freedom of creating and adapting environments for their fish may appreciate the versatility of the garibaldi. Their combative personalities mean that they should not be kept with other garibaldi, as they will fight over territory, sometimes to the death. They will harass passive fish within your tank as well, so keep only semi-aggressive to aggressive fish with them.

The challenges of owning a garibaldi are not insignificant, but their beauty, visibility, and rarity give them a unique appeal. If you have a large enough tank, and the expertise to purchase the correct inhabitants for them, you may find the garibaldi one of the most rewarding fish you can own.

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