The effectiveness of recreational fisheries governance has been mixed, with some countries boasting good governance practices that sustain productive recreational fisheries, while others lack any policies and governance structures specific to recreational fisheries. Here, we identify what constitutes effective governance of recreational fisheries by carrying out: (a) a desktop review of 227 country-specific fisheries legislation, policies and strategies; and (b) a follow-up questionnaire-based survey covering 57 contacts in 29 selected countries. Our results show that while recreational fishing is referred to in the main legislation of 67% of the countries reviewed, only 86 of these 152 countries provide a definition for either “recreational” or “sport” fishing and not always in the main legislation. Recreational fisheries are not considered to be effectively managed in many countries, with less than a quarter of respondents claiming that management in their country is effective. Furthermore, the management efficacy, including compliance with regulations, was considered greater for the industrial and small-scale fishing sectors than for recreational fisheries in most countries. From our findings, it appears that effective recreational fisheries governance requires explicit acknowledgement of recreational fisheries with a clear legal definition in Policy, a well-developed Policy statement, extensive co-management processes, clearly defined biological, economic and social monitoring structures and efficient and transparent cost recovery mechanisms. To ensure adaptation to rapidly changing conditions, policy should recognize all fishery sectors and proactively incorporate adaptive planning and contingency plans to effectively secure the diverse values of resources for all users.