Small-scale fisheries (SSF) make important but undervalued contributions to the economies of some of the world’s poorest countries. They also provide much of the animal protein needed by societies in which food security remains a pressing issue. Assessment and management of these fisheries is usually inadequate or absent and they continue to fall short of their potential as engines for development and social change. In this study, we bring together existing theory and methods to suggest a general scheme for diagnosing and managing SSF. This approach can be adapted to accommodate the diversity of these fisheries in the developing world. Many threats and solutions to the problems that beset SSF come from outside the domain of the fishery. Significant improvements in prospects for fisheries will require major changes in societal priorities and values, with consequent improvements in policy and governance. Changes in development policy and science reflect these imperatives but there remains a need for intra-sectoral management that builds resilience and reduces vulnerability to those forces beyond the influence of small-scale fishers.