Ocean governance is complex and influenced by multiple drivers and actors with different worldviews and goals. While governance encompasses many elements, in this paper we focus on the processes that operate within and between states, civil society and local communities, and the market, including industry. Specifically, in this paper, we address the question of how to move towards more sustainable ocean governance aligning with the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the UN Ocean Decade. We address three major risks to oceans that arise from governance-related issues: (1) the impacts of the overexploitation of marine resources; (2) inequitable distribution of access to and benefits from marine ecosystem services, and (3) inadequate or inappropriate adaptation to changing ocean conditions. The SDGs have been used as an underlying framework to develop these risks. We identify five drivers that may determine how ocean governance evolves, namely formal rules and institutions, evidence and knowledge-based decision-making, legitimacy of decision-making institutions, stakeholder engagement and participation, and empowering communities. These drivers were used to define two alternative futures by 2030: (a) ‘Business as Usual’—a continuation of current trajectories and (b) ‘More Sustainable Future’—optimistic, transformational, but technically achievable. We then identify what actions, as structured processes, can reduce the three major governance-related risks and lead to the More Sustainable Future. These actions relate to the process of co-creation and implementation of improved, comprehensive, and integrated management plans, enhancement of decision-making processes, and better anticipation and consideration of ambiguity and uncertainty. Supplementary information The online version of this article (10.1007/s11160-020-09631-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.