Coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP) is a key component of the US National Ocean Policy. Efforts to implement CMSP in US federal waters are beginning in earnest. Beyond sound science and data, a stakeholder engagement process that encourages public participation, collaboration and communication between disparate groups is at the heart of effective marine spatial planning (MSP). While a rich body of literature on stakeholder engagement exists, few opportunities exist to compare different stakeholder engagement processes as they occur on the ground for a particular stakeholder group. Between 2008 and 2010 marine spatial planning efforts were conducted by the neighboring US states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan and Rhode Island Ocean SAMP provide models for the nation in structuring effective stakeholder processes for ocean management. Within both states, commercial fishermen were identified as key stakeholders. For this study, commercial fishermen's perceptions of the engagement process in Massachusetts and Rhode Island were examined. Specifically, this paper explores the role fishermen sought in these two pioneering MSP efforts, and the role they felt they actually played. Key findings include the need for clear communication of the role of stakeholders, stakeholder empowerment and background stakeholder analysis to understand the needs and challenges faced by participating groups. This work provided a unique opportunity to examine how each ocean planning effort engaged commercial fishermen and to reflect on lessons learned for future such initiatives in the US and beyond. Exploring effectiveness through the perceptions of primary stakeholders such as commercial fishermen further elucidates the challenges and opportunities of carrying out MSP and stakeholder processes in practice.