We have investigated the effects of chronic hypoxia on the acute adrenergic stress response of adult rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). The goal of this study was to determine whether a prior 5-d exposure of fish to lowered environmental oxygen levels (60 or 80 Torr) would influence the nature of catecholamine secretion from chromaffin tissue in situ. Using a saline-perfused posterior cardinal vein preparation, it was demonstrated that the basal (unstimulated) secretion of noradrenaline and adrenaline was increased at 60-Torr hypoxia. In response to cholinergic (carbachol-elicited) stimulation, noradrenaline and adrenaline secretion were significantly affected by prior exposure to hypoxia. The construction of dose response curves revealed that noradrenaline secretion was enhanced at the lowest doses of carbachol (1 - 5 x 10(-7) mol kg(-1)) and that this was reflected by an approximate 10-fold reduction in the ED50 (the dose of carbachol eliciting half-maximal noradrenaline secretion). The effect of chronic hypoxia on in situ carbachol-evoked adrenaline secretion was similar but less pronounced. The results of this study suggest that during chronic moderate hypoxia, increased basal catecholamine secretion and enhanced responsiveness of chromaffin cells to cholinergic stimulation, as well aiding the ongoing stress, may assist the physiological adaptations to subsequent bouts of more severe acute stress.