The North Pacific subtropical gyre (NPSG) plays a major part in the export of carbon and other nutrients to the deep ocean. Primary production in the NPSG has increased in recent decades despite a reduction in nutrient supply to surface waters. It is thought that this apparent paradox can be explained by a shift in plankton community structure from mostly eukaryotes to mostly nitrogen-fixing prokaryotes. It remains uncertain, however, whether the plankton community domain shift can be linked to cyclical climate variability or a long-term global warming trend. Here we analyse records of bulk and amino-acid-specific (15)N/(14)N isotopic ratios (δ(15)N) preserved in the skeletons of long-lived deep-sea proteinaceous corals collected from the Hawaiian archipelago; these isotopic records serve as a proxy for the source of nitrogen-supported export production through time. We find that the recent increase in nitrogen fixation is the continuation of a much larger, centennial-scale trend. After a millennium of relatively minor fluctuation, δ(15)N decreases between 1850 and the present. The total shift in δ(15)N of -2 per mil over this period is comparable to the total change in global mean sedimentary δ(15)N across the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, but it is happening an order of magnitude faster. We use a steady-state model and find that the isotopic mass balance between nitrate and nitrogen fixation implies a 17 to 27 per cent increase in nitrogen fixation over this time period. A comparison with independent records suggests that the increase in nitrogen fixation might be linked to Northern Hemisphere climate change since the end of the Little Ice Age.