This paper explores a series of maxims, widely known in policy and academic circles as the ‘principles of good governance’, which state that policymaking in the European Union (EU) should be participatory, conducted as close to citizens as practicable, transparent, accountable, effective and coherent. These maxims were introduced into EU fisheries management as part of a radical reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 2002. This reform was instituted in response to criticisms of a prevailing management regime alleged to be inefficient, undemocratic, and potentially responsible for an environmental crisis: the exhaustion of key fish stocks. The research for this work has found that there are limits to the actual achievement of good governance in EU fisheries. In practice governance innovations are very often contradictory and rife with tensions. I reason that such problems result not merely from policy implementation failures; they constitute a more endemic feature of the CFP reforms. We can begin to understand these limits to good governance principles by looking to Agamben’s permanent state of exception thesis. Agamben’s theory helps to show how these contradictions and tensions occur under new governance regimes, because the relationship between democratic norms (like good governance) and political power is no longer clear. I argue that this blurring has been exploited by groups seeking influence in these new regimes. They do this through citing a supposed need for emergency measures to mitigate crisis. Although this research broadly supports the state of exception thesis, my analysis leads me to question some aspects of its application in contemporary governance spaces.