Background The effective management and conservation of biodiversity is predicated on clearly defined conservation targets. Species number is frequently used as a metric for conservation prioritization and monitoring changes in ecosystem health. We conducted a series of synoptic surveys focusing on the fishes of the Bootless Bay region of Papua New Guinea to generate a checklist of fishes of the region. Bootless Bay lies directly south of Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and experiences the highest human population density of any marine area in the country. Our checklist will set a baseline against which future environmental changes can be tracked. Results We generated a checklist of 488 fish species in 72 families found in Bootless Bay during a two-week sampling effort. Using incident-based methods of species estimation, we extrapolate there to be approximately 940 fish species in Bootless Bay, one of the lowest reported numbers in Papua New Guinea. Conclusions Our data suggest that the Bootless Bay ecosystem of Papua New Guinea, while diverse in absolute terms, has lower fish biodiversity compared to other shallow marine areas within the country. These differences in faunal diversity are most likely a combination of unequal sampling effort as well as biophysical factors within Bootless Bay compounded by historical and/or contemporary anthropogenic disturbances.