The live reef fish for food trade is a highly significant fishery that provides income for many coastal communities in the Asia-Pacific region but faces challenges relating to sustainability. This paper draws attention to the large gaps that exist between policy and practice in the live reef fish for food trade in Palawan, Philippines. While many policies have been introduced over many years, effective implementation remains a challenge. We show how the implementation of successive sets of policies has been hindered by three broadly inter-related features of the local social landscape: the capacity of government institutions and legal frameworks to implement regulations, the distinctive culture of fisheries governance in the Philippines, and the perspectives and practices of local fishers themselves. By focusing on the gaps between policy and practice, we highlight the ongoing need to examine more explicitly the ways in which local contexts shape the effectiveness of implementation, enforcement and policy more generally.