Plankton populations in Prince William Sound, Alaska, exhibited pronounced seasonal, annual and longer-period variability in composition and standing stock in response to physically influenced differences in nutrient availability, and possibly currents that modify local biomass by exchanges with water from the bordering Gulf of Alaska. During springs in which early, strong physical stratification developed, intense, short-lived phytoplankton blooms occurred. These blooms had relatively short residence times in the water column. In contrast, during springs in which slower, weaker stratification developed, phytoplankton blooms were prolonged and took longer to peak. These slower blooms prolonged the period of phytoplankton production, prolonged interaction with the springtime grazing community and led to the incorporation of more organic matter into pelagic food webs. A coupled biological-physical simulation of plankton production was used to examine the implications of seasonally varying air and mixed-layer temperatures, surface winds and incident light on the timing, duration, annual production and standing stock of plankton. Our modelling results reproduced the observed characteristics of the springtime production cycle, and the magnitude of zooplankton stocks for the period 1992–97 but not for 1981–91. These results suggest that for most of the 1990s, bottom-up influences on nutrient supplies controlled levels of primary consumers, whereas for the 11 years before that, other unknown factors dominated this process. We present the results of a comprehensive, multiyear study of relationships between plankton and physical limitations, and a retrospective analysis of earlier conditions to explore the possible causes for these differences.