Cytochrome P450 1A (CYP1A) induction is a robust marker for exposure to polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons and planar halogenated aromatic hydrocarbons that are aryl hydrocarbon receptor agonists. We examined CYP1A expression in mesopelagic fishes from the western North Atlantic. Individuals in 22 species were obtained from slope water and the Sargasso Sea in 1977, 1978, and 1993. Aryl hydrocarbon hydroxylase (AHH), a CYP1A activity, was detected in liver from all species in 1977/78. In some, including Gonostoma elongatum, AHH was inhibited by the CYP1A inhibitor alpha-naphthoflavone. CYP1A-dependent ethoxyresorufin O-deethylase (EROD) was detected in liver microsomes of all species in 1993; rates were highest in G. elongatum and Argyropelecus aculeatus. Immunoblot analysis with the CYP1A-specific monoclonal antibody 1-12-3 detected a single microsomal protein band in most 1993 samples; the highest content was in G. elongatum. Immunohistochemical analysis showed CYP1A staining in gill, heart, kidney, and/or liver of several species. Extracts of the 1993 G. elongatum and A. aculeatus, when applied to fish hepatoma cells (PLHC-1) in culture, elicited a significant induction of EROD in those cells. The capacity of the extracts to induce CYP1A correlated with the content of PCBs measured in the same fish (2-4.6 ng/g total body weight). Mesopelagic fish in the western North Atlantic, which experience no direct exposure to surface waters or sediments, are exposed chronically to inducers of CYP1A at levels that appear to be biochemically active in those fish.