Perhaps the greatest challenge facing global fisheries is that recovery often requires substantial short-term reductions in fishing effort, catches and profits. These costs can be onerous and are borne in the present; thus, many countries are unwilling to undertake such socially and politically unpopular actions. We argue that many nations can recover their fisheries while avoiding these short-term costs by sharply addressing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This can spur fishery recovery, often at little or no cost to local economies or food provision. Indonesia recently implemented aggressive policies to curtail the high levels of IUU fishing it experiences from foreign-flagged vessels. We show that Indonesia’s policies have reduced total fishing effort by at least 25%, illustrating with empirical evidence the possibility of achieving fishery reform without short-term losses to the local fishery economy. Compared with using typical management reforms that would require a 15% reduction in catch and 16% reduction in profit, the approach of curtailing IUU has the potential to generate a 14% increase in catch and a 12% increase in profit. Applying this model globally, we find that addressing IUU fishing could facilitate similar rapid, long-lasting fisheries gains in many regions of the world.