Labriform locomotion, which is powered by oscillating the paired pectoral fins, varies along a continuum from rowing the fins back and forth to flapping the fins up and down. It has generally been assumed (i) that flapping is more mechanically efficient than rowing, a hypothesis confirmed by a recent simulation experiment, and (ii) that flapping should be associated with wing-shaped fins while rowing should be associated with paddle-shaped fins. To determine whether these hypotheses and the results of the simulation experiment are consistent with natural variation, we compared the steady swimming performance (critical swimming speed) of four species of labrid fish (Cirrhilabrus rubripinnis, Pseudocheilinus octotaenia, Gomphosus varius and Halichoeres bivittatus) selected to form two pairs of closely related species that vary in fin shape and in the direction of fin motion. The results were consistent with expectations. Within each pair, the species with the best swimming performance also had (i) a fin shape characterized by a higher aspect ratio, a longer leading edge relative to the trailing edge fin rays and the center of fin area located closer to the fin base, and (ii) a steeper (more dorsoventral) stroke plane.