Macroalgal fields are a feature of the shallow tropical benthos, yet their importance for coral reef fish population dynamics remains poorly understood. The abundance of fish recruits was recorded using underwater visual census at six macroalgal and 11 coral reef sites in the Montebello and Barrow Islands. Surveys identified 6,935 individual recruit fish from 105 species, 54 genera and 20 families. Of these, 1,401 recruits from 48 species, 31 genera and 14 families were observed in macroalgal sites. Sixteen of the 105 recruit species (15.2 %) were observed exclusively at macroalgal sites. Forty-two (87.5 %) of these species have been observed as adults on adjacent coral reefs. Species composition of fish recruits differed significantly between the two habitats. Corallivore, small omnivore and zooplanktivore recruits had significantly higher numbers in the coral sites, while the results clearly demonstrate that juveniles, within the genera Lethrinus and Choerodon, as well as large algal croppers, are predominantly found at macroalgal (74-100 %) rather than coral-dominated sites. High-canopy macroalgae cover was positively correlated with abundance of these taxa, particularly Lethrinids (r2 = 0.40). This study is the first to highlight the important attributes of tropical macroalgal fields and suggests that they have a similar role to seagrass meadows as essential juvenile habitat, thus warranting greater attention in conservation planning and ecological studies. © 2013 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.