Episodes of trans-Arctic faunal exchange and isolation between the north Pacific and Atlantic ocean basins have been implicated as important historic geological events contributing to extant patterns of genetic diversity and structure in Holarctic faunas. We made a further test of the significance of such biogeographic events by examining mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) restriction fragment length and cytochrome b sequence polymorphism among north Pacific and Arctic, north-western Atlantic (north-eastern North American), and north-eastern Atlantic (European) regional forms of the boreal smelt, genus Osmerus. Our analyses also assessed whether the regional forms within this ‘species complex’: (i) represent a single widely distributed and polytypic species, or is composed of three geographically distinct species, and (ii) resulted from a single split from north Pacific ancestral Osmerus or two independent Pacific-Atlantic divergences. MtDNA sequence divergence estimates among forms ranged from 5.6–8.9% and from 6.1–8.5% based on restriction fragment and 300 base pairs of cytochrome b sequencing, respectively. Divergence within forms averaged less than 0.5% for fragment analysis and no differences were detected from sequence analysis. Provisional dating of lineage separations in Osmerus based on our sequence divergence estimates suggested a mid-Pliocene to early Pleistocene time frame for diversification among the forms. These estimated lineage separation dates support the idea that geological events in ‘Beringia’ and the surrounding trans-Arctic area (e.g. opening of the Bering Seaway, Pleistocene glacial advances), occurring over a similar time frame, have influenced radiation in Osmerus. Phenetic and parsimony analyses of the sequence divergence estimates and of sequence polymorphisms suggested that the north Pacific/Arctic form and the northwestern Atlantic form shared a common ancestor more recently than either has with the north-eastern Atlantic form, thus supporting the hypothesis that the species complex has arisen from two independent Pacific-Atlantic divergences probably beginning during the mid-Pliocene.