The capacity for marine fishes to perform aerobically (aerobic scope) is predicted to control their thermal tolerance and, thus, the impact that rapid climate change will have on their populations. We tested the effect of increased water temperatures on the resting and maximum rates of oxygen consumption in five common coral reef fishes at Lizard Island on the northern Great Barrier Reef, Australia. All species exhibited a decline in aerobic capacity at elevated water temperatures (31, 32 or 33 °C) compared with controls (29 °C); however, the response was much stronger in two cardinalfishes, Ostorhinchus cyanosoma and O. doederleini, compared with three damselfishes, Dascyllus anuarus, Chromis atripectoralis and Acanthochromis polyacanthus. Aerobic scope of the two cardinalfishes was reduced by nearly half at 31 °C compared with 29 °C, and virtually all capacity for additional oxygen uptake was exhausted by 33 °C. In contrast, the three damselfishes retained over half their aerobic scope at 33 °C. Such differences in thermal tolerance between species, and possibly families, suggest that the community structure of reef fish assemblages might change significantly as ocean temperatures increase. Populations of thermally tolerant species are likely to persist at higher temperatures, but populations of thermally sensitive species could decline on low-latitude reefs if individual performance falls below levels needed to sustain viable populations.