‘Communities’ – whether local, regional, or transnational – can provide an essential force in the protection of our global underwater cultural heritage (UCH). As an issue of low political concern, with its protection vulnerable to externalities and compliance weaknesses, UCH forms an ideal test case for exploring governance solutions without reliance on the state. It is also an area where communities are increasingly integrated within governance models. This article examines the theoretical justification for reducing reliance on top-down laws to protect natural and cultural heritage, exploring Ostromian arguments for greater community self- and co-regulation. Using this theoretical framework, it highlights numerous advantages of community-oriented governance in the management of a complex global concern, such as UCH protection, and underscores the role and importance of the appropriate design of meta-regulation in steering communities towards wider public objectives. The article also identifies where communities or ‘networks’ have provided important additional protection for UCH, and discusses further policy mechanisms – such as community buy-in, incentivization, and self-regulation – which could help to facilitate community-led governance in the future.