Many elasmobranchs have experienced strong population declines, which have been largely attributed to the direct and indirect effects of exploitation. Recently, however, live elasmobranchs are being increasingly valued for their role in marine ecosystems, dive tourism and intrinsic worth. Thus, management plans have been implemented to slow and ultimately reverse negative trends, including shark-specific (e.g. anti-finning laws) to ecosystem-based (e.g. no-take marine reserves) strategies. Yet it is unclear how successful these measures are, or will be, given the degree of depletion and slow recovery potential of most elasmobranchs. Here, current understanding of elasmobranch population recoveries is reviewed. The potential and realized extent of population increases, including rates of increase, timelines and drivers are evaluated. Across 40 increasing populations, only 25% were attributed to decreased anthropogenic mortality, while the majority was attributed to predation release. It is also shown that even low exploitation rates (2–6% per year) can halt or reverse positive population trends in six populations currently managed under recovery plans. Management measures that help restore elasmobranch populations include enforcement or near-zero fishing mortality, protection of critical habitats, monitoring and education. These measures are highlighted in a case study from the south-eastern U.S.A., where some evidence of recovery is seen in Pristis pectinata, Galeocerdo cuvier and Sphyrna lewini populations. It is concluded that recovery of elasmobranchs is certainly possible but requires time and a combination of strong and dedicated management actions to be successful.