Biochronologies provide important insights into the growth responses of fishes to past variability in physical and biological environments and, in so doing, allow modelling of likely responses to climate change in the future. We examined spatial variability in the key drivers of inter-annual growth patterns of a widespread, tropical snapper, Lutjanus bohar, at similar tropical latitudes on the north-western and north-eastern coasts of the continent of Australia. For this study, we developed biochronologies from otoliths that provided proxies of somatic growth and these were analysed using mixed-effects models to examine the historical drivers of growth. Our analyses demonstrated that growth patterns of fish were driven by different climatic and biological factors in each region, including Pacific Ocean climate indices, regional sea level and the size structure of the fish community. Our results showed that the local oceanographic and biological context of reef systems strongly influenced the growth of L. bohar and that a single age-related growth trend cannot be assumed for separate populations of this species that are likely to experience different environmental conditions. Generalised predictions about the growth response of fishes to climate change will thus require adequate characterisation of the spatial variability in growth determinants likely to be found throughout the range of species that have cosmopolitan distributions.