Nitrite (NO2−) is a substrate for both oxidative and reductive microbial metabolism. NO2− accumulates at the base of the euphotic zone in oxygenated, stratified open-ocean water columns, forming a feature known as the primary nitrite maximum (PNM). Potential pathways of NO2− production include the oxidation of ammonia (NH3) by ammonia-oxidizing bacteria and archaea as well as assimilatory nitrate (NO3−) reduction by phytoplankton and heterotrophic bacteria. Measurements of NH3 oxidation and NO3− reduction to NO2− were conducted at two stations in the central California Current in the eastern North Pacific to determine the relative contributions of these processes to NO2− production in the PNM. Sensitive (〈 10 nmol L−1), precise measurements of NH4+ and NO2− indicated a persistent NH4+ maximum overlying the PNM at every station, with concentrations as high as 1.5 μmol L−1. Within and just below the PNM, NH3 oxidation was the dominant NO2− producing process, with rates of NH3 oxidation to NO2− of up to 31 nmol L-1 d-1, coinciding with high abundances of ammonia-oxidizing archaea. Though little NO2− production from NO3− was detected, potentially nitrate-reducing phytoplankton (photosynthetic picoeukaryotes, 〈i〉Synechococcus〈/i〉, and 〈i〉Prochlorococcus〈/i〉) were present at the depth of the PNM. Rates of NO2− production from NO3− were highest within the upper mixed layer (4.6 nmol L-1 d-1) but were either below detection limits or 10 times lower than NH3 oxidation rates around the PNM. One-dimensional modeling of water column NO2− production agreed with production determined from 15N bottle incubations within the PNM, but a modeled net biological sink for NO2− just below the PNM was not captured in the incubations. Residence time estimates of NO2− within the PNM ranged from 18 to 470 days at the mesotrophic station and was 40 days at the oligotrophic station. Our results suggest the PNM is a dynamic, rather than relict, feature with a source term dominated by ammonia oxidation. © 2013 Author(s).