Activities of several metabolic enzymes show distinct patterns of zonation along the intestinal tract of tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and copper rockfish (Sebastes caurinus). Zonation is species and enzyme specific, with different metabolic activities concentrated in specific areas, and few generalizations can be made. The rockfish show the smallest degree of zonation, with highest activities in the third quarter of the intestine, and shallow gradients to either side, and a general upswing in activity towards the distal end. In the trout, mitochondrial enzyme activities (citrate synthase, glutamate dehydrogenase, malate dehydrogenase) are highest in the pyloric caeca and decrease along the length of the small intestine. This pattern is accentuated for malic enzyme and glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase. These enzymes drop precipitously in activity after the first few sections of the small intestine, while other NADP-linked dehydrogenases (isocitrate dehydrogenase, and 6-phosphogluconate dehydrogenase) show moderate activity in pyloric caeca and peak toward the distal section of the small intestine. In tilapia, glutamate dehydrogenase shows a similar decrease as in trout, but citrate synthase peaks towards the distal sections. NADP-dependent dehydrogenases reveal distinct patterns, peaking in different sections of the intestine-malic enzyme in the proximal midsection, glucose 6-phosphate dehydrogenase in the distal mid-section, and isocitrate dehydrogenase in the anal section. Enzyme activities in the stomach of trout and tilapia also show zonation, with the midsection generally displaying the highest activities. A 5-day treatment of tilapia with an intraperitoneal cortisol deposit (25 mg kg(-1) wet mass) drastically alters metabolic performance along the gut in enzyme specific patterns, generally increasing enzyme activities in site-specific arrangements. Cortisol treatment also leads to the expected increases in activities of phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase, pyruvate kinase and aspartate aminotransferase in liver, but not in kidney. Aspartate aminotransferase is the only enzyme in brain significantly increased by cortisol treatment. Short-term food deprivation changes enzyme patterns, often resembling those observed after cortisol administration. We conclude that brain, liver and intestinal amino acid metabolism is an important target for cortisol action in fish and that metabolic zonation is a key factor to be reckoned with when analyzing physiological phenomena in the fish intestine.