An extensive literature has appeared since 1990 on the study of ‘no-take’ marine reserves and their potential to make significant contributions to the conservation and management of fisheries, especially in tropical environments (see Polunin 1990; Roberts & Polunin 1991; DeMartini 1993; Roberts 1997; Allison et al. 1998; Guénette et al. 1998). The literature describes many potential benefits of marine reserves to fisheries, including increases in spawner-biomass-per-recruit and increases in larval supply from protecting ‘source’ populations (Jennings 2000). The important word here is ‘potential’. Some claims made by advocates of marine reserves might be regarded as optimistic, whereas critics of reserves might sometimes have been unduly harsh. Conservation goals for marine reserves are often poorly defined, and differences of opinion regarding the efficacy of reserves for fulfilling any of their stated goals can frequently be attributed to a lack of good information with which to predict their effects. Here, we critically examine the literature from 1990–2001 to determine (1) the relative effort put into empirical and theoretical approaches to predict reserve effects, and (2) the quality of empirical evidence available to support theoretical predictions. It is not the purpose of this article to single out particular studies for criticism (although this is sometimes inevitable to provide examples), nor to draw conclusions concerning the efficacy of marine reserves.