A transition zone in phytoplankton concentration running across the North Pacific basin at 30° to 40° north latitude corresponds to a basin-wide front in surface chlorophyll observed in a composite of coastal zone color scanner (CZCS) images for May, June, and July 1979–1986. This transition zone with low chlorophyll to the south and higher chlorophyll to the north can be simulated by a simple model of the concentration of phytoplankton, zooplankton, and dissolved nutrient (nitrate) in the surface mixed layer of the ocean applied to the North Pacific basin for the climatological conditions during oceanographic springtime (May, June, and July). The model is initialized with a 1° × 1° gridded estimate of wintertime (February, March, and April) mixed layer nitrate concentrations calculated from an extensive nutrient database and a similarly gridded mixed layer depth data set. Comparison of model predictions with CZCS data provides a means of evaluating the dynamics of the transition zone. We conclude that in the North Pacific, away from major boundary currents and coastal upwelling zones, wintertime vertical mixing determines the total nutrient available to the plankton ecosystem in the spring. The transition zone seen in basin-scale CZCS images is a reflection of the geographic variation in the wintertime mixed layer depth and the nitracline, leading to a latitudinal gradient in phytoplankton chlorophyll.