Marine seismic surveying discerns subsurface seafloor geology, indicative of, for example, petroleum deposits, by emitting high-intensity, low-frequency impulsive sounds. Impacts on fish are uncertain. Opportunistic monitoring of acoustic signatures from a seismic survey on the inner continental shelf of North Carolina, USA, revealed noise exceeding 170 dB re 1 μ Pa peak on two temperate reefs federally designated as Essential Fish Habitat 0.7 and 6.5 km from the survey ship path. Videos recorded fish abundance and behavior on a nearby third reef 7.9 km from the seismic track. During seismic surveying, reef-fish abundance declined by 78% during evening hours when fish habitat use was highest on the previous three days without seismic noise. Despite absence of videos documenting fish returns after seismic surveying, the significant reduction in fish occupation of the reef represents disruption to daily pattern. This numerical response confirms that conservation concerns associated with seismic surveying are realistic.