Improving predictions of ecological responses to climate change requires understanding how local abundance relates to temperature gradients, yet many factors influence local abundance in wild populations. We evaluated the shape of thermal‐abundance distributions using 98 422 abundance estimates of 702 reef fish species worldwide. We found that curved ceilings in local abundance related to sea temperatures for most species, where local abundance declined from realised thermal ‘optima’ towards warmer and cooler environments. Although generally supporting the abundant‐centre hypothesis, many species also displayed asymmetrical thermal‐abundance distributions. For many tropical species, abundances did not decline at warm distribution edges due to an unavailability of warmer environments at the equator. Habitat transitions from coral to macroalgal dominance in subtropical zones also influenced abundance distribution shapes. By quantifying the factors constraining species’ abundance, we provide an important empirical basis for improving predictions of community re‐structuring in a warmer world.