Seafloor spreading is largely unobserved because 98 per cent of the global mid-ocean-ridge system is below the ocean surface. Our understanding of the dynamic processes that control seafloor spreading is thus inferred largely from geophysical observations of spreading events on land at Afar in East Africa and Iceland. However, these are slow-spreading centres influenced by mantle plumes. The roles of magma pressure and tectonic stress in the development of seafloor spreading are still unclear. Here we use seismic observations to show that the most recent eruption at the fast-spreading East Pacific Rise just North of the Equator initiated at a melt-rich segment about 5 kilometres long. The change in static stress then promoted almost-concurrent rupturing along at least 35 kilometres of the ridge axis, where tectonic stress had built up to a critical level, triggering magma movement. The location of impulsive seismic events indicative of lava reaching the seafloor suggests that lava subsequently erupted from multiple isolated magma lenses (reservoir chambers) with variable magma ascent rates, mostly within 48 hours. Therefore, even at magmatically robust fast-spreading ridges, a substantial portion of the spreading may be due to tectonic stress building up to a critical level rather than magma overpressure in the underlying magma lenses.