Small-scale fishers and fishing communities have long suffered marginalisation and discrimination in South Africa. New laws and policies promulgated as the result of a court case brought by small-scale fishers, NGOs and academics attempt to rectify this problem. Drawing on the poverty-vulnerability-marginalisation framework, the paper considers whether this regulatory regime reduces vulnerability and marginalisation within the sector as an important precursor to poverty reduction initiatives, such as improved rights allocation. While the new regulatory regime is a step in the right direction, the paper ultimately finds that there are shortcomings in these laws, many of which have been thrown into sharp relief by the rights implementation process and COVID-19 lockdowns. These include narrow eligibility criteria for fishing rights, a lack of substantive solutions when it comes to vulnerable groups, processes insufficient to prevent elite capture, and impediments to the practice of alternative livelihoods. These shortcomings must be addressed through the appropriate expansion of access rights, consultation with fishers and more inclusive drafting, if the contribution of small-scale fisheries to development and poverty reduction in South Africa is to be realised.