Long-term observations show that fish and plankton populations in the ocean fluctuate in synchrony with large-scale climate patterns, but similar evidence is lacking for estuaries because of shorter observational records. Marine fish and invertebrates have been sampled in San Francisco Bay since 1980 and exhibit large, unexplained population changes including record-high abundances of common species after 1999. Our analysis shows that populations of demersal fish, crabs and shrimp covary with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and North Pacific Gyre Oscillation (NPGO), both of which reversed signs in 1999. A time series model forced by the atmospheric driver of NPGO accounts for two-thirds of the variability in the first principal component of species abundances, and generalized linear models forced by PDO and NPGO account for most of the annual variability of individual species. We infer that synchronous shifts in climate patterns and community variability in San Francisco Bay are related to changes in oceanic wind forcing that modify coastal currents, upwelling intensity, surface temperature, and their influence on recruitment of marine species that utilize estuaries as nursery habitat. Ecological forecasts of estuarine responses to climate change must therefore consider how altered patterns of atmospheric forcing across ocean basins influence coastal oceanography as well as watershed hydrology.