Surgeonfish and parrotfish play an important role in structuring the benthic communities of coral reefs. However, despite their importance, little is known about their distribution patterns in the north sector of the Mesoamerican Reef System. This study evaluated the distribution of these fish in 34 sites in four habitats (lagoon, front, slopes and terrace) along a depth gradient (c 0.5–20 m). These herbivorous fish were assessed by visual censuses. Species dominance was evaluated for each habitat using SIMPER analysis. Habitat characteristics data were collected to determine the relationship between habitat conditions and spatial variations in herbivorous fish (using abundance and biomass as a proxy) via redundancy analysis. The herbivorous fish assemblage had a low density (fish per 100 m2) and biomass (g·100 m−2) in comparison with assemblages in similar studies. In contrast, species richness was high compared with other studies in the Caribbean. Spatial variation of the abundance, biomass and size of herbivorous fish was strongly related to coral and seagrass cover, as well as to depth and rugosity. These four variables were critical in controlling the distribution patterns of the herbivorous fish assemblages. No associations were found between fish and macroalgae or any other benthic group. The present study indicates that the species richness of surgeonfish and parrotfish was not regionally affected by the dominance of macroalgae in the habitats studied. Seagrass beds and the coral reef matrix need to be preserved for the herbivorous fish assemblages to remain healthy and capable of controlling excess macroalgae growth.