Species richness is regulated by a complex network of scale-dependent processes. This complexity can obscure the influence of limiting species interactions, making it difficult to determine if abiotic or biotic drivers are more predominant regulators of richness. Using integrative modeling of freshwater fish richness from 721 lakes along an 11 degrees latitudinal gradient, we find negative interactions to be a relatively minor independent predictor of species richness in lakes despite the widespread presence of predators. Instead, interaction effects, when detectable among major functional groups and 231 species pairs, were strong, often positive, but contextually dependent on environment. These results are consistent with the idea that negative interactions internally structure lake communities but do not consistently 'scale-up' to regulate richness independently of the environment. The importance of environment for interaction outcomes and its role in the regulation of species richness highlights the potential sensitivity of fish communities to the environmental changes affecting lakes globally.