New Zealand's (NZ) geographical isolation, extensive coastline and well-characterized oceanography offer a valuable system for marine biogeographical research. Here we use mtDNA control region sequences in the abundant endemic sea-star Patiriella regularis to test the following literature-based predictions: that coastal upwelling disrupts north–south gene flow and promotes population differentiation (hypothesis 1); and that an invasive Tasmanian population of the species was introduced anthropogenically from southern New Zealand (hypothesis 2). We sequenced 114 samples from 22 geographical locations, including nine sites from North Island, nine from South Island, one from Stewart Island and three from Tasmania. Our analysis of these sequences revealed an abundance of shallow phylogenetic lineages within P. regularis (68 haplotypes, mean divergence 0.9%). We detected significant genetic heterogeneity between pooled samples from northern vs. southern New Zealand (FST = 0.072; P = 0.0002), consistent with the hypothesis that upwelling disrupts gene flow between these regions (hypothesis 1). However, we are currently unable to rule out the alternative hypothesis that Cook Strait represents a barrier to dispersal (North Island vs. South Island; FST = 0.031; P = 0.0467). The detection of significant spatial structure in NZ samples is consistent with restricted gene flow, and the strong structure evident in northern NZ may be facilitated by distinct ocean current systems. Four shared haplotypes and nonsignificant differentiation (FST = 0.025; P = 0.2525) between southern New Zealand and Tasmanian samples is consistent with an anthropogenic origin for the latter population (hypothesis 2).