A simple habitat assessment score (HAS) was designed to assess habitat complexity across several different shallow tropical marine habitats including sandy patches, algal beds, seagrass beds and reefs. It measured rugosity, variety of growth forms, height, refuge size categories, percentage live cover and percentage hard substratum. Multiple regression models using HAS variables as predictors accounted for 71 and 22% of the variation in observed species richness and total fish abundance respectively. The two most important predictors of observed species richness were rugosity and variety of growth forms, while height was the most important predictor of total fish abundance. The HAS method worked consistently across a variety of habitat types and the complexity map closely mirrored the map of observed species richness, reflecting the patchy habitat mosaic of shallow tropical marine areas. Stations at the mouth of an enclosed lagoon, however, had a higher number of species than might have been expected judging from the habitat complexity scores. It is possible that this was linked to the preferential settling of pelagic fish larvae in this area as tidal water exchanges between the bay and the reef were funnelled through one small gap. This study highlights the need for fish biodiversity studies to take habitat complexity into account.