The future of the global ocean economy is currently envisioned as advancing towards a ‘blue economy’—socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically viable ocean industries. However, tensions exist within sustainable development approaches, arising from differing perspectives framed around natural capital or social equity. Here we show that there are stark differences in outlook on the capacity for establishing a blue economy, and on its potential outcomes, when social conditions and governance capacity—not just resource availability—are considered, and we highlight limits to establishing multiple overlapping industries. This is reflected by an analysis using a fuzzy logic model to integrate indicators from multiple disciplines and to evaluate their current capacity to contribute to establishing equitable, sustainable and viable ocean sectors consistent with a blue economy approach. We find that the key differences in the capacity of regions to achieve a blue economy are not due to available natural resources, but include factors such as national stability, corruption and infrastructure, which can be improved through targeted investments and cross-scale cooperation. Knowledge gaps can be addressed by integrating historical natural and social science information on the drivers and outcomes of resource use and management, thus identifying equitable pathways to establishing or transforming ocean sectors. Our results suggest that policymakers must engage researchers and stakeholders to promote evidence-based, collaborative planning that ensures that sectors are chosen carefully, that local benefits are prioritized, and that the blue economy delivers on its social, environmental and economic goals.