Severe climatic disturbance events often have major impacts on coral reef communities, generating cycles of decline and recovery, and in some extreme cases, community-level phase shifts from coral- to algal-dominated states. Benthic habitat changes directly affect reef fish communities, with low coral cover usually associated with low fish diversity and abundance. No-take marine reserves (NTRs) are widely advocated for conserving biodiversity and enhancing the sustainability of exploited fish populations. Numerous studies have documented positive ecological and socio-economic benefits of NTRs; however, the ability of NTRs to ameliorate the effects of acute disturbances on coral reefs has seldom been investigated. Here, we test these factors by tracking the dynamics of benthic and fish communities, including the important fishery species, coral trout (Plectropomus spp.), over 8 years in both NTRs and fished areas in the Keppel Island group, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Two major disturbances impacted the reefs during the monitoring period, a coral bleaching event in 2006 and a freshwater flood plume in 2011. Both disturbances generated significant declines in coral cover and habitat complexity, with subsequent declines in fish abundance and diversity, and pronounced shifts in fish assemblage structure. Coral trout density also declined in response to the loss of live coral, however, the approximately 2:1 density ratio between NTRs and fished zones was maintained over time. The only post-disturbance refuges for coral trout spawning stocks were within the NTRs that escaped the worst effects of the disturbances. Although NTRs had little discernible effect on the temporal dynamics of benthic or fish communities, it was evident that the post-disturbance refuges for coral trout spawning stocks within some NTRs may be critically important to regional-scale population persistence and recovery. © 2014 The Authors. Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.