Phytoplankton assimilation and microbial oxidation of ammonium are two critical conversion pathways in the marine nitrogen cycle. The underlying regulatory mechanisms of these two competing processes remain unclear. Here we show that ambient nitrate acts as a key variable to bifurcate ammonium flow through assimilation or oxidation, and the depth of the nitracline represents a robust spatial boundary between ammonium assimilators and oxidizers in the stratified ocean. Profiles of ammonium utilization show that phytoplankton assemblages in nitrate-depleted regimes have higher ammonium affinity than nitrifiers. In nitrate replete conditions, by contrast, phytoplankton reduce their ammonium reliance and thus enhance the success of nitrifiers. This finding helps to explain existing discrepancies in the understanding of light inhibition of surface nitrification in the global ocean, and provides further insights into the spatial linkages between oceanic nitrification and new production.