Recent empirical studies have demonstrated that human activities such as fishing can strongly affect the natural capital and services provided by tropical seascapes. However, policies to mitigate anthropogenic impacts can also alter food web structure and interactions, regardless of whether the regulations are aimed at single or multiple species, with possible unexpected consequences for the ecosystems and their associated services. Complex community response to management interventions have been highlighted in the Caribbean, where, contrary to predictions from linear food chain models, a reduction in fishing intensity through the establishment of a marine reserve has led to greater biomass of herbivorous fish inside the reserve, despite an increased abundance of large predatory piscivores. This positive multi-trophic response, where both predators and prey benefit from protection, highlights the need to take an integrated approach that considers how numerous factors control species coexistence in both fished and unfished systems. In order to understand these complex relationships, we developed a general model to examine the trade-offs between fishing pressure and trophic control on reef fish communities, including an exploration of top-down and bottom-up effects. We then validated the general model predictions by parameterizing the model for a reef system in the Bahamas in order to tease apart the wide range of species responses to reserves in the Caribbean. Combining the development of general theory and site-specific models parameterized with field data reveals the underlying driving forces in these communities and enables us to make better predictions about possible population and community responses to different management schemes.