The concept of “blue growth,” which aims to promote the growth of ocean economies while holistically managing marine socioecological systems, is emerging within national and international marine policy. The concept is often promoted as being novel; however, we show that historical analogies exist that can provide insights for contemporary planning and implementation of blue growth. Using a case-study approach based on expert knowledge, we identified 20 historical fisheries or aquaculture examples from 13 countries, spanning the last 40–800 years, that we contend embody blue growth concepts. This is the first time, to our knowledge, that blue growth has been investigated across such broad spatial and temporal scales. The past societies managed to balance exploitation with equitable access, ecological integrity and/or economic growth for varying periods of time. Four main trajectories existed that led to the success or failure of blue growth. Success was linked to equitable rather than open access, innovation and management that was responsive, holistic and based on scientific knowledge and monitoring. The inability to achieve or maintain blue growth resulted from failures to address limits to industry growth and/or anticipate the impacts of adverse extrinsic events and drivers (e.g. changes in international markets, war), the prioritization of short-term gains over long-term sustainability, and loss of supporting systems. Fourteen cross-cutting lessons and 10 recommendations were derived that can improve understanding and implementation of blue growth. Despite the contemporary literature broadly supporting our findings, these recommendationsare not adequately addressed by agendas seeking to realize blue growth.