Since the 1970s, small-scale fisheries have had an important place in fisheries social science and in fisheries management. While there has been substantial discussion of what constitutes the category of small-scale fisheries, its considerable ambiguity is nevertheless often passed over. This paper argues that while the category of scale fisheries can be best understood in terms of scale, the underlying reason for the power of the category lies in the values of social justice and ecological sustainability that it has come to represent in response to dominant high modern narratives of change. Fisheries governance may better be served by prioritising these values rather than by making a fetish out of small-scale fisheries. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.