In this article, we compare four fishing‐based areas in Thailand and the Philippines to examine if and how small‐scale fishing communities are able to escape marginalisation. Three questions guide our inquiry: (i) How have fishing communities been affected by overfishing, climate change and other pressures? (ii) What adaptive strategies have these communities employed to mitigate socio‐economic and environmental challenges? (iii) What has been the impact of these strategies on (escaping) marginalisation? Through a survey of 393 fishing‐based households and semi‐structured interviews with 59 key informants we find an uneven mixture of drivers, strategies and impacts. Respondents varyingly attribute declining fish catch to illegal fishing, overfishing, population increase, climate change and pollution. The case studies illustrate various degrees of adaptive successes that result from integration of top‐down and bottom‐up initiatives, and availability and access to livelihood strategies. However, the impact of adaptive strategies on overcoming marginalisation remains meagre and constrained by, among others, the power of illegal and commercial fishing and the absence of integrated spatial planning. We call for policy interventions and further research that takes into account the integration of top‐down and bottom‐up institutions, and the multiple dimensions and spaces of the drivers that shape fisherfolk marginalisation.