Large-scale algal oil production requires continuous outputs and a trade-off between growth and oil content. Two unrelated marine algae (Nannochloropsis oceanica [CCAP 849/10] and Chlorella vulgaris [CCAP 211/21A]) that showed high oil production under batch culture were studied under controlled semicontinuous cultivation conditions. Three essential attributes maximized oil productivity: (i) downregulation of cell size to maximize light absorption under N limitation; (ii) low nutrient-depletion thresholds to trigger oil induction; (iii) a means of carbohydrate suppression in favor of oil. N. oceanica responded better to input N/P variations and is more suited to continuous oil production. A low N/P ratio was effective in both suppressing carbohydrate and reducing cell size concomitant with oil production. In C. vulgaris, nutrient starvation thresholds for oil were higher and carbohydrate was preferentially induced, which impeded stress-level optimization for oil. These differences, which impact continuous oil production at scale, are driven by species adaptation to specific marine habitats.