Understanding the social dimensions of marine and coastal conservation is considered integral to better inform governance and management actions. Perceptions are recognized as a way to understand these dimensions, which can evidence limitations of current efforts, whilst facilitating more informed policy making and provide a basis for more robust management actions. Following a qualitative and case study approach, this paper utilises stakeholder interviews to explore the perceptions on marine ecosystems and current management actions that include marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Central American country of Guatemala. Results identify similarities and contrasts in the perception of marine conservation and MPAs, where weak local governments and limited community participation in the decision-making process can be considered the underlying problems. Recommendations are made which can capitalise upon multi-level improvements that need to integrate all stakeholder groups. Improvements should also consider the regional setting and must reflect Guatemala’s historical and social context. This paper highlights that stakeholder perceptions need a central role to further improve the quality of governance in coastal Guatemala. Recommendations can further assist other developing countries facing similar challenges.