Phytoplankton productivity and export sequester climatically significant quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide as particulate organic carbon through a suite of processes termed the biological pump. How the biological pump operated in the past is therefore important for understanding past atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and Earth’s climate history. However, reconstructing the history of the biological pump requires proxies. Due to their intimate association with biological processes, several bioactive trace metals and their isotopes are potential proxies for past phytoplankton productivity, including: iron, zinc, copper, cadmium, molybdenum, barium, nickel, chromium, and silver. Here we review the oceanic distributions, driving processes, and depositional archives for these nine metals and their isotopes based on GEOTRACES-era datasets. We offer an assessment of the overall maturity of each isotope system to serve as a proxy for diagnosing aspects of past ocean productivity and identify priorities for future research. This assessment reveals that cadmium, barium, nickel, and chromium isotopes offer the most promise as tracers of paleoproductivity, whereas iron, zinc, copper, and molybdenum do not. Too little is known about silver to make a confident determination. Intriguingly, the elements that are least sensitive to productivity may be used to trace other aspects of ocean chemistry, such as nutrient sources, particle scavenging, organic complexation, and ocean redox state. These complementary sensitivities suggest new opportunities for combining perspectives from multiple proxies that will ultimately enable painting a more complete picture of marine paleoproductivity, biogeochemical cycles, and Earth’s climate history.