Many trace metals such as iron, copper, and manganese have lower concentrations in the surface waters of the North Pacific Ocean than in North Atlantic surface waters. However, cobalt and zinc concentrations in North Atlantic surface waters are often as low as those reported in the North Pacific. We studied the relationship between the distribution of cobalt, zinc, and phosphorus in surface waters of the western North Atlantic Ocean. Both metals show strong depletion in the southern Sargasso Sea, a region characterized by exceedingly low dissolved inorganic phosphorus (generally <4 nmol L?1) and measurable alkaline phosphatase activity. Alkaline phosphatase is a metalloenzyme (typically containing zinc) that cleaves phosphate monoesters and is a diagnostic indicator of phosphorus stress in phytoplankton. In contrast to the North Pacific Ocean, cobalt and zinc appear to be drawn down to their lowest values only when inorganic phosphorus is below 10 nmol L?1 in the North Atlantic Ocean. Lower levels of phosphorus in the Atlantic may contribute to these differences, possibly through an increased biological demand for zinc and cobalt associated with dissolved organic phosphorus acquisition. This hypothesis is consistent with results of a culture study where alkaline phosphatase activity decreased in the model coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi upon zinc and cobalt limitation.