The surf zones of ocean beaches are prime fishing sites and provide habitat for a diversity of fish species. The spatial composition of seascapes shapes fish abundance and diversity in most coastal ecosystems, but it remains untested whether seascape effects operate on ocean beaches. This study used the surf zones of sandy beaches in eastern Australia as a model system to contrast fish assemblages between the two main surf habitats, nearshore troughs and offshore bars, and test how habitat partitioning changes with beach exposure, wave conditions, seascape connectivity (i.e. proximity to estuaries and rocky headlands) and tide. Fish were sampled with Baited Remote Underwater Video Stations (BRUVs) from the surf zones of 18 sandy beaches in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. Habitat type and beach exposure combined to shape fish abundance and diversity in the surf. Fish assemblages always differed between nearshore trough and offshore bar habitats; beach exposure was also important to surf fishes, but did not alter the priority effects of habitat partitioning. Beach exposure is an important predictor of faunal assemblages on ocean beaches, and is often used as a surrogate in conservation planning. Our results show, however, that surf zones are not single uniform spatial units, but are composed of topographically and hydrodynamically distinct habitats that support correspondingly distinct fish assemblages. Because fishing effort also differs between surf habitats, fisheries management and spatial conservation planning need to reflect these spatial nuances in the surf zones of ocean beaches.