Much of coral reef ecology has focused on how human impacts change coral reefs to macroalgal reefs. However, macroalgae may not always be a good indicator of reef decline, especially on reefs with significant sea urchin populations, as found in Kenya and Hawaii. This study tests the effects of trophic interactions (i.e. herbivory by fishes and sea urchins) and spatial competition (between algae and coral) on algal community structure of reefs surrounding two Hawaiian Islands that vary in their level of human impacts. Reef-building organisms (corals and crustose coralline algae) were less abundant and turf algae were more abundant on Maui as compared to Lanai, where human impacts are lower. In contrast to previous studies, we found no evidence that macroalgae increased with human impacts. Instead, low turf and macroalgal abundance were best explained by the interactive effects of coral cover and sea urchin abundance. Fishing sea urchin predators appeared to have cascading effects on the benthic community. The absence of sea urchin predators and high sea urchin densities correspond to a disproportionately high abundance of turf and crustose coralline algae. We propose that high turf algal abundance is a better indicator of reef decline in Hawaii than high macroalgal abundance because turf abundance was highest on reefs with low coral cover and few fish. The results of this study emphasize that understanding changes in community composition are context-dependent and that not all degraded reefs look the same.