Abstract Retaining coral reef fish for subsistence during commercial fishing is a common practice for indigenous fishers in the Torres Strait, Australia, despite being inconsistent with legislation. Fisher access point surveys were completed between 2004 and 2006 on three islands in Torres Strait to characterise this subsistence practice and assess the level to which it undermines current minimum legal fish sizes. Approximately 15% of the annual total catch was retained for subsistence during commercial fishing. Notably, subsistence catch of the most commercially valuable species almost entirely comprised individuals smaller than the minimum legal sizes. The higher proportions of undersized individuals of valuable species retained during commercial fishing on some of the islands were most likely associated with an increase in professionalism of the fishers. These results demonstrate how the intended outcomes from a management strategy can be undermined when the specific operational conditions of the fishery are not considered. Successful implementation of management arrangements in indigenous communities ultimately depends on the sociocultural conditions of the communities and their understanding and adherence to the rules. A productive way forward for the management of this fishery is greater engagement of indigenous communities and managers in co-management arrangements.