The impacts of ocean warming resulting from recent climate change on the abundance patterns of marine species have been well documented in temperate seas of the northern hemisphere, but the impacts of a widening tropical belt are largely unexplored. Using measurements of sea surface temperature and spear-fishing records for 84 species spanning a 19-yr period, we examined the effects of ocean warming on a sub-tropical reef-fish community on the southeastern coast of Africa. Corresponding with a 0.46°C increase in average sea surface temperature between the time periods 1989–97 and 2002–2007, the ratio of species showing an overall decrease/ no change/increase in abundance was 1 : 3 : 2 among six species at the northern limits of their distribution in the region (temperate species), 1 : 15 : 6 among 22 broadly distributed species, and 1 : 5 : 9 among 15 species at the southern limits of their distribution (tropical species). Also, the relative abundance of temperate species as a whole decreased by 10–13% whereas that of tropical species increased by 9%, and broadly distributed species showed little change. Average species richness and diversity increased 33 and 15% respectively between the two time periods. These results are broadly consistent with a predicted poleward shift in species ranges and a predicted increase in species richness and diversity with increasing sea temperature. Our findings confirm that large-scale climate change causing a widening of the tropical belt and subsequent ocean warming is having a profound impact on marine species abundance patterns and community composition at a local scale in the sub-tropics.