The observed onset of climate change at high northern latitudes has highlighted the need to establish current baseline conditions in the Arctic Ocean, and has raised concern about the potential for the invasion and growth of biota that have warm temperature optima, such as cyanobacteria. In this study, we used 16S rRNA gene sequences as a molecular marker to evaluate the hypothesis that Arctic rivers provide a major inoculum of cyanobacteria into the coastal Arctic Ocean. Surface samples were collected along a transect extending from the Mackenzie River (Northwest Territories, Canada), across its estuary, to 200 km offshore at the edge of the perennial Arctic pack ice (Beaufort Sea). The highest picocyanobacteria concentrations occurred in the river, with concentrations an order of magnitude lower at offshore marine stations. The 16S rRNA gene clone libraries of five surface samples and five strains along this gradient showed that the cyanobacterial sequences were divided into eight operational taxonomic units (OTUs), six OTUs closely related to freshwater and brackish Synechococcus and two OTUs of filamentous cyanobacteria. No typically marine Synechococcus sequences and no Prochlorococcus sequences were recovered. These results are consistent with the hypothesis of an allochthonous origin of picocyanobacteria in the coastal Arctic Ocean, and imply survival but little net growth of picocyanobacteria under the present conditions in northern high-latitude seas.