The transformation of coral reefs has profound implications for millions of people. However, the interactive effects of changing reefs and fishing remain poorly resolved. We combine underwater surveys (271,000 fishes), catch data (18,000 fishes), and household surveys (351 households) to evaluate how reef fishes and fishers in Moorea, French Polynesia responded to a landscape-scale loss of coral caused by sequential disturbances (a crown-of-thorns sea star outbreak followed by a category 4 cyclone). Although local communities were aware of the disturbances, less than 20% of households reported altering what fishes they caught or ate. This contrasts with substantial changes in the taxonomic composition in the catch data that mirrored changes in fish communities observed on the reef. Our findings highlight that resource users and scientists may have very different interpretations of what constitutes ‘change’ in these highly dynamic social–ecological systems, with broad implications for successful co-management of coral reef fisheries.