The response of six species of freshwater fishes, from the families Cyprinidae (common carp Cyprinus carpio, roach Rutilus rutilus and chub Leuciscus cephalus) and Salmonidae (rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss, brown trout Salmo trutta and Arctic charr Salvelinus alpinus), to a standardized stressor was evaluated. A 6 h period of confinement resulted in changes to plasma cortisol, glucose, amino acid and lactate levels compared with unconfined controls. There were significant differences in the response profiles both within and between families. The cyprinid species exhibited higher and more sustained stress-induced increases in plasma cortisol and glucose than the salmonid species. In cyprinids, plasma lactate and plasma amino acid concentration showed less disturbance following stress than in salmonids. The results of the study, together with an evaluation of previously published data for eight salmonid species and six cyprinid species, support the hypothesis that differences in core elements of the stress response exist between species of fishes, and that this variation may have a systematic basis.