The incentive to overexploit a fishery resource is thought to exist if the resource owner’s discount rate is sufficiently higher than the biological productivity of the targeted fish stock. Coral reef fisheries are extensively overexploited worldwide, but the discount rates of reef fishers are largely unknown, and there is little information about how discount rates relate to the exploitation status of fisheries. We address these two research gaps for 48 small-scale reef fisheries around the world. We use a life history based method to derive fishery level intrinsic growth rates, and then apply fisheries economics theory to investigate the compatibility of 2 different discount rates (official and private) with the exploitation status of reef fisheries. We find that official discount rates that are normally used for policy making appear to be too low to fully reflect the short term outlook of reef fishers. Instead, our inferred annual average private discount rate of 107% for fishers may better reflect the general overexploited state of reef fisheries. Our results indicate that in order to improve the chances of success, fisheries policies, which affect local fishers, may need to be evaluated using private discount rates rather than the currently used official discount rates.