In the Western Indian Ocean (WIO), local communities are increasingly assuming responsibility for inshore marine resources either on their own or through collaborative management arrangements with governments or non-state actors. In this paper, we trace the evolution and expansion of community management in the WIO and present the first ever inventory and assessment of the region’s locally managed marine areas (LMMAs). We compare the key attributes of these areas to those under government stewardship and assess their relative contributions to progress towards the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) target of 10% of marine and coastal ecological regions to be effectively conserved by 2020. We also explore the legal frameworks that underpin locally managed marine initiatives in Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique and Tanzania to assess the potential for future expansion. A principal finding is that whilst LMMAs protect more than 11,000 square kilometres of marine resource in the WIO, they are hampered by underdeveloped local and national legal structures and enforcement mechanisms. In our recommendations to improve local management, we suggest establishing a network of LMMA practitioners in the WIO region to share experiences and best practice.