Seafood certification and eco-labeling programs, which leverage market forces to incentivize fisheries improvements, have changed the face of the global seafood market through an expanding supply of and demand for certified seafood. To contribute towards conservation goals, these programs employ a strategy termed the ‘theory of change, which predicts that as market demand for certified products grows, additional fisheries will improve practices and management in order to gain certification; however, there is limited evidence that this actually occurs, particularly in fisheries that require significant improvements to meet certification requirements. Here, we examine the capacity of one of the largest seafood certification programs in the world, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), to foster transformative change in The Bahamas Caribbean spiny lobster fishery. Drawing on fishery documentation and interviews with fishery stakeholders, we assess the role of the sustainable seafood market throughout the fishery's transformation from “unsustainable’ to an MSC-certified fishery. We found that the MSC played three key roles in transforming the fishery from an undesirable state towards long-term sustainability by creating a stimulus for change, serving as guide prior to and throughout the fishery's transition, and helping to stabilize the fishery in its new trajectory. This study provides the first empirical evidence for the conservation strategy employed by seafood certification programs for improving fisheries that require transformative change in order to meet sustainability goals.