© 2015 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.Mutualisms affect the biodiversity, distribution and abundance of biological communities. However, ecological processes that drive mutualism-related shifts in population structure are often unclear and must be examined to elucidate how complex, multi-species mutualistic networks are formed and structured. In this study, we investigated how the presence of key marine mutualistic partners can drive the organisation of local communities on coral reefs. The cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus, removes ectoparasites and reduces stress hormones for multiple reef fish species, and their presence on coral reefs increases fish abundance and diversity. Such changes in population structure could be driven by increased recruitment of larval fish at settlement, or by post-settlement processes such as modified levels of migration or predation. We conducted a controlled field experiment to examine the effect of cleaners on recruitment processes of a common group of reef fishes, and showed that small patch reefs (61-285 m2) with cleaner wrasse had higher abundances of damselfish recruits than reefs from which cleaner wrasse had been removed over a 12-year period. However, the presence of cleaner wrasse did not affect species diversity of damselfish recruits. Our study provides evidence of the ecological processes that underpin changes in local population structure in the presence of a key mutualistic partner.