Despite longstanding recognition that small-scale fisheries make multiple contributions to economies, societies and cultures, assessing these contributions and incorporating them into policy and decision-making has suffered from a lack of a comprehensive integrating ‘lens’. This paper focuses on the concept of ‘wellbeing’ as a means to accomplish this integration, thereby unravelling and better assessing complex social and economic issues within the context of fisheries governance. We emphasize the relevance of the three key components of wellbeing – the material, relational and subjective dimensions, each of which is relevant to wellbeing at scales ranging from individual, household, community, fishery to human-ecological systems as a whole. We review nine major approaches influential in shaping current thinking and practice on wellbeing: the economics of happiness, poverty, capabilities, gender, human rights, sustainable livelihoods, vulnerability, social capital, and social wellbeing. The concept of identity is a thread that runs through the relational and subjective components of social wellbeing, as well as several other approaches and thus emerges as a critical element of small-scale fisheries that requires explicit recognition in governance analysis. A social wellbeing lens is applied to critically review a global body of literature discussing the social, economic and political dimensions of small-scale fishing communities, seeking to understand the relevance and value addition of applying wellbeing concepts in small-scale fisheries.