It has been suggested that a decrease in atmospheric methane levels triggered the progressive rise of atmospheric oxygen, the so-called Great Oxidation Event, about 2.4Gyr ago. Oxidative weathering of terrestrial sulphides, increased oceanic sulphate, and the ecological success of sulphate-reducing microorganisms over methanogens has been proposed as a possible cause for the methane collapse, but this explanation is difficult to reconcile with the rock record. Banded iron formations preserve a history of Precambrian oceanic elemental abundance and can provide insights into our understanding of early microbial life and its influence on the evolution of the Earth system. Here we report a decline in the molar nickel to iron ratio recorded in banded iron formations about 2.7Gyr ago, which we attribute to a reduced flux of nickel to the oceans, a consequence of cooling upper-mantle temperatures and decreased eruption of nickel-rich ultramafic rocks at the time. We measured nickel partition coefficients between simulated Precambrian sea water and diverse iron hydroxides, and subsequently determined that dissolved nickel concentrations may have reached ~400nM throughout much of the Archaean eon, but dropped below ~200nM by 2.5Gyr ago and to modern day values (~9nM) by ~550Myr ago. Nickel is a key metal cofactor in several enzymes of methanogens and we propose that its decline would have stifled their activity in the ancient oceans and disrupted the supply of biogenic methane. A decline in biogenic methane production therefore could have occurred before increasing environmental oxygenation and not necessarily be related to it. The enzymatic reliance of methanogens on a diminishing supply of volcanic nickel links mantle evolution to the redox state of the atmosphere.