The present study investigated aspects of establishment of the Special Management Area (SMA) regime as a conservation and fisheries management tool of the inshore waters in Tonga. The SMA regime is a fisheries management system that was adopted in 2002 in Tonga. SMA was established since 2006 after coastal communities who were interested in managing the fisheries resources within the adjacent fishing waters of their communities. The result of this present study suggested there was significantly higher perceived support towards the establishment of SMAs from SMA households compared with comparator households. Subsequently, the perceived costs and benefits accruing from the establishment of the SMAs had a significant influence on perceived attitudes towards supporting the establishment of SMAs. The main differences in attitudes among fishers were related to the household livelihoods, fishing activities and seafood consumption pattern being the most important. In addition, the abundance, biomass, diversity and percentage covers of fish, invertebrate and habitat structure were variable, however, there were significant increases in species richness, evenness, abundance and biomass of the major exploited fish families. The results also suggest that the response to protection vary with intensity of exploitation and body size and may be spatially idiosyncratic, as a function of local factors such as life histories, trophic groups, protection age and size, and geographical location. Furthermore, the present study through local knowledge presents evidence for shifting baselines in fishers’ perception of declines of exploited fish species in inshore fisheries in Tonga. This will also provide significant insights into the duration of “fisher’s memory” of depleted species, which is of fundamental importance for SMA network development in Tonga.