Community-based management and the establishment of marine reserves have been advocated worldwide as means to overcome overexploitation of fisheries. Yet, researchers and managers are divided regarding the effectiveness of these measures. The “tragedy of the commons” model is often accepted as a universal paradigm, which assumes that unless managed by the State or privatized, common-pool resources are inevitably overexploited due to conflicts between the self-interest of individuals and the goals of a group as a whole. Under this paradigm, the emergence and maintenance of effective community-based efforts that include cooperative risky decisions as the establishment of marine reserves could not occur. In this paper, we question these assumptions and show that outcomes of commons dilemmas can be complex and scale-dependent. We studied the evolution and effectiveness of a community-based management effort to establish, monitor, and enforce a marine reserve network in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Our findings build on social and ecological research before (1997–2001), during (2002) and after (2003–2004) the establishment of marine reserves, which included participant observation in >100 fishing trips and meetings, interviews, as well as fishery dependent and independent monitoring. We found that locally crafted and enforced harvesting rules led to a rapid increase in resource abundance. Nevertheless, news about this increase spread quickly at a regional scale, resulting in poaching from outsiders and a subsequent rapid cascading effect on fishing resources and locally-designed rule compliance. We show that cooperation for management of common-pool fisheries, in which marine reserves form a core component of the system, can emerge, evolve rapidly, and be effective at a local scale even in recently organized fisheries. Stakeholder participation in monitoring, where there is a rapid feedback of the systems response, can play a key role in reinforcing cooperation. However, without cross-scale linkages with higher levels of governance, increase of local fishery stocks may attract outsiders who, if not restricted, will overharvest and threaten local governance. Fishers and fishing communities require incentives to maintain their management efforts. Rewarding local effective management with formal cross-scale governance recognition and support can generate these incentives.