On the insular platform of Old Providence/Santa Catalina, Colombia, we compared nearshore lagoonal patch reefs to those on the northern bank distant from the islands to determine the importance of habitat connectivity to fish community structure. Nearshore patch reefs had greater proximity to mangrove, seagrass and rocky shore habitats, and they had significantly more individuals. Nearshore reefs also tended to have a greater total biomass, more species, a higher proportion of predators of mobile invertebrates and small fishes, and a lower proportion of herbivores. Biomass of snappers and grunts at nearshore sites was four times greater compared to bank sites, and was correlated with the amount of seagrass and sand/rubble habitat within 500 m of each patch reef. We also compared length-frequency distributions and abundances of grunts and snappers among all sites (deep and shallow forereefs, patch reefs and deep and shallow leeside slopes). The results were consistent with ontogenetic migrations from shallow sites, primarily seagrass and mangrove habitats, to deeper sites and to those further out on the bank. The evidence suggests that species differed in both distance and direction of dispersal, which may be affected by the abundance and distribution of preferred habitats. Marine reserves near the islands should target nearshore nursery areas and patch reefs harboring species of limited dispersal capability. Reserves on the northern bank would protect spawners of those species showing the greatest dispersal capability.