Marine protected areas (MPAs) are one approach, amongst many, for the protection of marine biodiversity. Although proven to be effective at protecting biodiversity and to be supported by local and wider communities, the implementation of some MPAs has been very contentious especially with fishing stakeholders. We researched the causes of these issues by examining the experience of implementation of the Batemans Marine Park in New South Wales, Australia. While MPA selection and management need to be based on rigorous science, a commensurate level of attention needs to be applied to understanding the social systems that also play a role in determining the protection measures and approaches. The most pressing issue that needs to be resolved early on in a planning process is the MPA's objectives, and whether these objectives are well understood and accepted by the local community. Building community support for MPAs also involves taking into account the different systems of knowledge and views of the natural world that exist within the community. Science alone is not sufficient to convince communities of the need for MPAs or their value in achieving conservation outcomes. Incorporating ‘bottom–up’ approaches into communication and engagement strategies will allow for a greater diversity of voices to be heard and acknowledged, protecting the planning processes against polarisation. Engaging local communities needs to go beyond large–scale consultation processes to include more rigorous, integrated social, economic and ecological assessment exercises, involving a collaborative participatory approach. Context is important and planning processes need to recognise the individual and unique needs of each affected community. Rigid ideas around the best means of achieving biodiversity protection combined with ‘a one size fits all’ approach to planning and community engagement are likely to exacerbate conflict and division and stimulate opposition.