The direct respiration of sinking organic matter by attached bacteria is often invoked as the dominant sink for settling particles in the mesopelagic ocean. However, other processes, such as enzymatic solubilization and mechanical disaggregation, also contribute to particle flux attenuation by transferring organic matter to the water column. Here we use observations from the North Atlantic Ocean, coupled to sensitivity analyses of a simple model, to assess the relative importance of particle-attached microbial respiration compared to the other processes that can degrade sinking particles. The observed carbon fluxes, bacterial production rates, and respiration by water column and particle-attached microbial communities each spanned more than an order of magnitude. Rates of substrate-specific respiration on sinking particle material ranged from 0.007?±?0.003 to 0.173?±?0.105?day?1. A comparison of these substrate-specific respiration rates with model results suggested sinking particle material was transferred to the water column by various biological and mechanical processes nearly 3.5?times as fast as it was directly respired. This finding, coupled with strong metabolic demand imposed by measurements of water column respiration (729.3?±?266.0?mg?C?m?2?d?1, on average, over the 50 to 150?m depth interval), suggested a large fraction of the organic matter evolved from sinking particles ultimately met its fate through subsequent remineralization in the water column. At three sites, we also measured very low bacterial growth efficiencies and large discrepancies between depth-integrated mesopelagic respiration and carbon inputs.