© 2016 Author(s). Environmental change and the exploitation of marine resources have had profound impacts on marine communities, with potential implications for ocean biogeochemistry and food security. In order to study such global-scale problems, it is helpful to have computationally efficient numerical models that predict the first-order features of fish biomass production as a function of the environment, based on empirical and mechanistic understandings of marine ecosystems. Here we describe the ecological module of the BiOeconomic mArine Trophic Size-spectrum (BOATS) model, which takes an Earth-system approach to modelling fish biomass at the global scale. The ecological model is designed to be used on an Earth-system model grid, and determines size spectra of fish biomass by explicitly resolving life history as a function of local temperature and net primary production. Biomass production is limited by the availability of photosynthetic energy to upper trophic levels, following empirical trophic efficiency scalings, and by well-established empirical temperature-dependent growth rates. Natural mortality is calculated using an empirical size-based relationship, while reproduction and recruitment depend on both the food availability to larvae from net primary production and the production of eggs by mature adult fish. We describe predicted biomass spectra and compare them to observations, and conduct a sensitivity study to determine how they change as a function of net primary production and temperature. The model relies on a limited number of parameters compared to similar modelling efforts, while retaining reasonably realistic representations of biological and ecological processes, and is computationally efficient, allowing extensive parameter-space analyses even when implemented globally. As such, it enables the exploration of the linkages between ocean biogeochemistry, climate, and upper trophic levels at the global scale, as well as a representation of fish biomass for idealized studies of fisheries.