Physical, chemical and perceived stressors can all evoke non-specific responses in fish, which are considered adaptive to enable the fish to cope with the disturbance and maintain its homeostatic state. If the stressor is overly severe or long-lasting to the point that the fish is not capable of regaining homeostasis, then the responses themselves may become maladaptive and threaten the fish's health and well-being. Physiological responses to stress are grouped as primary, which include endocrine changes such as in measurable levels of circulating catecholamines and corticosteroids, and secondary, which include changes in features related to metabolism, hydromineral balance, and cardiovascular, respiratory and immune functions. In some instances, the endocrine responses are directly responsible for these secondary responses resulting in changes in concentration of blood constituents, including metabolites and major ions, and, at the cellular level, the expression of heat-shock or stress proteins. Tertiary or whole-animal changes in performance, such as in growth, disease resistance and behavior, can result from the primary and secondary responses and possibly affect survivorship.
Fishes display a wide variation in their physiological responses to stress, which is clearly evident in the plasma corticosteroid changes, chiefly cortisol in actinopterygian fishes, that occur following a stressful event. The characteristic elevation in circulating cortisol during the first hour after an acute disturbance can vary by more than two orders of magnitude among species and genetic history appears to account for much of this interspecific variation. An appreciation of the factors that affect the magnitude, duration and recovery of cortisol and other physiological changes caused by stress in fishes is important for proper interpretation of experimental data and design of effective biological monitoring programs.