Bala shark care guide

Bala shark (lat. Balantiocheilos melanopterus) is a tropical freshwater fish belonging to the Cyprinidae family. The fish can be encountered in the waters of South-East Asia, and it is threatened with extinction. It’s quite a popular tank fish due to its likeness to a shark. However, bala sharks actually aren’t sharks and have nothing in common with them. Aquarists value the fish for its size, aggregative behavior, and ability to live together with any tank mates of a similar temper and size.

Habitat in the wild

The name Balantiocheilos originates from two Greek words: balantion – a sack, a cavity; cheilos – a lip. Bala shark was described by Pieter Bleeker in 1851 for the first time. The Dutch doctor and ichthyologist suggested that the fish is from the Mekong river basin in Thailand, but later the scientists proved that he was wrong.

The bala shark is native to Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo. Earlier it was considered that its habitat is in the Mekong and Chao Phraya river basins, but nowadays, this information is considered wrong. The fish prefers clean rivers and streams with fast water flow since slow flows are not for it. Sadly, bala shark has become extinct in lots of its natural habitats.

Since 1996 bala shark is included in IUCN Red List as a species threatened with extinction. Thus, wild species mustn’t be sold. That’s why on sale, you may see samples grown on fish farms.

Scientific NameBalantiocheilos melanopterus
Common NamesBala shark, silver shark, bala fish
Ease of keepingEasy
Lifespan10 years and more
Tank size200 liters (52 gallons) and more
Tank typeCommunity of large fishes
Temperature22–28°C (72–82°F)
Water hardness5.0–15.0 dGH
Sizeup to 25-30 cm (10-12 in)


The bala shark body is thin and slender, flattened from sides. The head is small, the eyes are very large, and the fish has an inferior mouth with no barbs.

The scales are very large, and the fins are sickle-shaped. The dorsal is tall and vertical, and its fluke is bifurcated. The body is silver steel-colored, large scales create sparkles. In pet shops, as a rule, you see the fish about 5 cm long (2 in). But don’t be fooled with this small size because these are just juveniles.

In the wild, this fish can grow to become 40 cm long (16 in), and in captivity, the bala shark size may be up to 25-30 cm (10-12 in).

Since the fish is quite large, it requires a spacious tank. If the tank is not spacious enough for the fish, the lifespan will be much shorter than it should, and the fish will feel uncomfortable all the time.

Difficulties in keeping

The bala shark is not a demanding one, but the thing is that it should be kept in a school, and the fish grows to become a large one. To keep the school of 6 species, you’ll need a very large tank, not less than 150 cm (5 ft) long. This species is quite enduring and lives long provided with proper care. It is easy to feed since it eats all kinds of food. It grows big and rather fast. Thus it becomes too large for its tank very quickly.

Keeping in a tank

Bala shark is prone to get stressed: when getting very scared, it may even die. After buying the fish, be ready – it’ll behave rather nervously.

The fish may refuse food and hide. This happens because the fish is usually brought right from its natural habitat, i.e., from real open waters. Therefore, when getting into a tank, the bala shark gets stressed and starts looking for a place to hide.

Keep this in mind and create in advance some hide-places, allowing the bala shark to adapt to new life conditions and survive relocation. You can improve the appetite of the fish which refuses from food by active water renew (up to 30-40% every day) and by raising the tank water temperature 2-3 degrees.

Some time later, when the fish gets stronger and starts hungrily eating their food, you can decrease the water temperature back to normal value and then reduce the number of water renews to the ordinary schedule.


Bala shark lifespan provided with favorable conditions is up to 10 and sometimes 12 years. When it lives stressed, the lifespan can be about 5-6 years. When the fish lacks space, its growth slows down, and its lifespan significantly reduces.

Tank size

The main thing for bala shark is a sufficient amount of tank space. The large size completely corresponds to its high activity. Plus, the fish should be kept in a school of 6 species at least. It mustn’t be kept alone or just a couple. There must be at least 5 species in a school; otherwise, dominant species will show aggression towards weaker relatives or other tank mates. A very small school can also cause the fish to get nervous or sick.

The tank has to be rather wide and not less than 150 cm (5 ft) long. For juveniles, the tank capacity should be at least 200 liters (52,83 gal), but the advisable tank size, in this case, is 600 liters (158,5 gal).

Representatives of this fish kind fancy spacious tanks a lot; thus, it should be not just a large one, but also wide enough, providing enough space for them to swim.

The tank must be closed from the top: fish excessive activity or fright may lead to the fish jump out of the tank and death as a result. Bala sharks are very timid (especially in the beginning) and active that’s why they often jump out of the tank if it is not covered from the top.

Water parameters

Here are tank water requirements:

  • temperature — 22–28°C (72–82°F);
  • pH: 6.0–8.0;
  • water hardness — 5.0–12.0 dGH;
  • it’s desirable to renew 1/3 of the tank water volume every week.

Tank setup: decorations and plants

As for the tank decorations – don’t put too many decorations and plants. You can use some stones and snags, but again, not too many. The fish requires a lot of space to swim, so it’s better to put tank decorations along the tank perimeter.

Choose tank plants with thick leaves and a strong root system – soft-leaved plants will be attacked and harmed by the fish. As for the tank bottom substrate color, it’s better to be dark: on such a background, the fish will look much better.

Fish prefers natural light. For the fish, the light day is 8-10 hours.


In the wild, bala shark inhabits clean waters. That’s why when keeping it in a tank, you’ll require a perfect filtration system creating sufficient water flow and good aeration. Considering that the fish is large and schooling one, the only option is to use a powerful canister filter.


The wild bala shark diet is rather diversified: worms, maggots, pieces of plants, algae. Like most Cyprinidae species, they are very gluttonous and are constantly looking for food.

Despite their good appetite, bala sharks are rather sensitive to the food quality. It’s not recommended to feed with a blood worm since the stomach may fail to digest its chitinous shell. As a result, the whole digestive system may suffer. You should keep in mind that live food is dangerous because it may infect the fish with various diseases and parasites.

For proper growth and development of the bala shark, you must select high-quality artificial food for them. It is convenient to use and store; it is safe and well-balanced.

Plant food additives are quite necessary for the proper diet. Up to 10% of the daily diet must be plant food. Often lettuce and spinach leaves are used for this purpose. However, if you leave them in the tank for a long time, they may reduce the water quality. It’s better to use food with high spirulina content for this purpose.

Bala shark takes the food in the middle water layer; it eats food from the tank bottom less enthusiastically. Pellets quickly get soft and go slowly to the tank bottom, and this makes them perfect for the fish feeding in the middle tank layers.

To keep the bala shark healthy, you should control its diet and don’t feed it with the same kind of food all the time. Bala shark is very gluttonous, so sometimes you should arrange some hungry days for it. It is better to feed them 2-3 times a day with the food portion that will be eaten in several munites completely.

Tank mates

Bala shark is a peaceful daytime fish. It is rather tolerant to its tank mates. However, when choosing tank mates focus on your tank size since it has to stay spacious enough for all fishes and shouldn’t be overcrowded.

Always keep in mind adult fish size: though the fish isn’t a predator itself, it may eat its small tank mates. That’s why it’s not a good idea to keep bala shark together with a betta, mollies, guppies, neon tetra, harlequin rasbora, and other small creatures like cherry shrimp.

Middle and large-sized fish will be good tank mates for bala sharks. For example, rainbow shark, red tail shark, African cichlids, arowana (it shouldn’t treat bala shark as food), angelfish. While goldfish shouldn’t be kept in one tank with bala shark, since it is too slow, likes colder water, and they have poor compatibility.

Bala shark is quite good for large community tanks since it doesn’t deal with sufficiently larger fish. It is a rather timid fish, but it is fast, and it’s a good jumper. That’s why you should be careful when cleaning the tank bottom or catching the fish in the tank.

In general, species gets used to its new environmental conditions during a month. It prefers to live in a school of 5-7 species, but if the tank size doesn’t allow to keep such a large school, try to keep at least 2-3 species – if the fish is alone in the tank quite often, it’s aggressive.

As we’ve already mentioned, large and small fishes can be tank mates. Just avoid very small fishes, juveniles, large cichlid species like Jack Dempsey or oscar fish (large predators may nip fins), territory dependent, and slow fishes.

Gender differences: male vs female

The female is larger, and it has a more rounded body. It is rather difficult to define juveniles’ gender. In captivity, the fish becomes reproductive only when it is 3 years old, being not less than 13 cm (5 in) long.


Unfortunately, bala shark breeding is impossible in an aquarium. The size of the tank where the fish used to live and grow has to be not less than 1.5 m long, and its capacity should be about 1500 l (400 gals). Hormone injections are used to stimulate spawning. A separating net is put on the spawning tank bottom. The spawning occurs with fish couples. The female produces from 5000 to 10000 eggs. Once the spawning is over, the breeders are removed from the tank. The egg incubation time is two days. The juveniles stay in schools. They start to swim 2-4 days after they hatch. Provided with favorable tank conditions, they can become 15 cm long at the age of 3 years.