Marine reserves are widely used throughout the world to prevent overfishing and conserve biodiversity, but uncertainties remain about their optimal design. The effects of marine reserves are heterogeneous. Despite theoretical findings, empirical studies have previously found no effect of size on the effectiveness of marine reserves in protecting commercial fish stocks. Using 58 datasets from 19 European marine reserves, we show that reserve size and age do matter: Increasing the size of the no-take zone increases the density of commercial fishes within the reserve compared with outside; whereas the size of the buffer zone has the opposite effect. Moreover, positive effects of marine reserve on commercial fish species and species richness are linked to the time elapsed since the establishment of the protection scheme. The reserve size-dependency of the response to protection has strong implications for the spatial management of coastal areas because marine reserves are used for spatial zoning.