Enzyme-labeled fluorescence (ELF) and bulk alkaline phosphatase (AP) activity enzyme assays were used to evaluate the phosphorus (P) status of phytoplankton communities in San Francisco and Monterey bays. Both regions exhibit spatial and temporal variability in bulk AP activity with maximum activities during the early spring and summer periods of high biological productivity. ELF analysis revealed pronounced differences in the makeup of organisms responsible for AP activity in these two environments. In Monterey Bay dinoflagellates are responsible for the bulk of the AP activity. Diatoms infrequently exhibited AP activity. Dinoflagellates that comprised only 14% of all cells counted in Monterey Bay accounted for 78% of AP-producing cells examined. The presence of AP activity in this group suggests that changes in P sources, concentrations, and bioavailability could disproportionably influence this group relative to diatoms in Monterey Bay. In San Francisco Bay, AP production, indicated by ELF, was associated primarily with bacteria attached to suspended particles, potentially used to hydrolyze organic compounds for carbon, rather than to satisfy P requirements. Our results highlight the importance of organic P as a bioavailable nutrient source in marine ecosystems and as a component of the marine P cycle.