Few studies assess the effects of recreational fishing in isolation from commercial fishing. We used meta-analysis to synthesise 4444 samples from 30 years (1987–2017) of fish surveys inside and outside a large network of highly protected reserves in the Ningaloo Marine Park, Western Australia, where the major fishing activity is recreational. Data were collected by different agencies, using varied survey designs and sampling methods. We contrasted the relative abundance and biomass of target and non-target fish groups between fished and reserve locations. We considered the influence of, and possible interactions between, seven additional variables: age and size of reserve, one of two reserve network configurations, reef habitat type, recreational fishing activity, shore-based fishing regulations and survey method. Taxa responded differently: the abundance and biomass inside reserves relative to outside was higher for targeted lethrinids, while other targeted (and non-targeted) fish groups were indistinguishable. Reef habitat was important for explaining lethrinid response to protection, and this factor interacted with reserve size, such that larger reserves were demonstrably more effective in the back reef and lagoon habitats. There was little evidence of changes in relative abundance and biomass of fishes with reserve age, or after rezoning and expansion of the reserve network. Our study demonstrates the complexities in quantifying fishing effects, highlighting some of the key factors and interactions that likely underlie the varied results in reserve assessments that should be considered in future reserve design and assessment.