The establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs), particularly of no-take areas, is often viewed as a conflict between conservation and fishing. Partially protected areas (PPAs) that restrict some extractive uses are often regarded as a balance between biodiversity conservation and socio-economic viability. Few attempts have been made to generalize the ecological effects of PPAs. We synthesized the results of empirical studies that compared PPAs to (i) no-take reserves (NTRs) and (ii) to open access (Open) areas, to assess the potential benefits of different levels of protection for fish populations. Response to protection was examined in relation to MPA parameters and the exploitation status of fish. Our syntheses suggest that while PPAs significantly enhance density and biomass of fish relative to Open areas, NTRs yielded significantly higher biomass of fish within their boundaries relative to PPAs. The positive response to protection was primarily driven by target species. There was a large degree of variability in the magnitude of response to protection, although the size of the PPA explained some of this variability. The protection regime within the PPA provided useful insights into the effectiveness of partial MPAs. We conclude that MPAs with partial protection confer advantages, such as enhanced density and biomass of fish, compared to areas with no restrictions, although the strongest responses occurred for areas with total exclusion. Thus, MPAs with a combination of protection levels are a valuable spatial management tool particularly in areas where exclusion of all activities is not a socio-economically and politically viable option.