Abstract Marine protected areas are an important tool for management of marine ecosystems. Despite their utility, ecological design criteria are often not considered or feasible to implement when establishing protected areas. In 2001, the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument (VICRNM) in St John, US Virgin Islands was established by Executive Order. The VICRNM prohibits almost all extractive uses. Surveys of habitat and fishes inside and outside of the VICRNM were conducted in 2002–2004. Areas outside the VICRNM had significantly more hard corals, greater habitat complexity, and greater richness, abundance and biomass of reef fishes than areas within the VICRNM. The administrative process used to delineate the boundaries of the VICRNM did not include a robust ecological characterisation of the area. Because of reduced habitat complexity within the VICRNM, the enhancement of the marine ecosystem may not be fully realised or increases in economically important reef fishes may take longer to detect.