The aim of this study was to measure the changes in lipid metabolism which occur during smoltification and seawater transfer in Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). Duplicate groups of Atlantic salmon parr were fed diets containing either fish oil (FO) or a blend of linseed and rapeseed oils, vegetable oil (VO), from October (week 0) to seawater transfer in May (week 26). From May to August (weeks 26-43), all fish were fed a fish oil-containing diet. Fatty acyl desaturation and elongation activity were followed in isolated hepatocytes incubated with radioactive 18:3n-3 and 18:2n-6. Metabolism of 18:3n-3 was consistently around 5-fold greater than metabolism of 18:2n-6, and total metabolism of both substrate polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) was increased in fish fed both VO and FO up to seawater transfer after which desaturation activities were reduced. Desaturation activities with both 18:3n-3 and 18:2n-6 were significantly greater in fish fed VO, compared to fish fed FO, at 22 and 26 wk. Arachidonic acid (20:4n-6; AA) in liver polar lipids (PL) of fish fed VO increased consistently from weeks 0-22 but varied after seawater transfer. In fish fed FO, AA in liver PL remained constant up to week 17 before increasing at seawater transfer and leveling off thereafter. Eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3; EPA) in liver PL of fish fed VO decreased significantly from week 0-22 before rising at seawater transfer and increasing rapidly posttransfer. EPA in liver PL of fish fed FO showed a similar trend except EPA was always greater in the freshwater phase compared to fish fed VO. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) levels in liver PL of fish fed VO remained constant in the seawater phase before increasing following seawater transfer. In fish fed FO, DHA in liver PL increased from weeks 0-17 reducing and leveling off postseawater transfer. The levels of PGF(2 alpha) and PGF(3 alpha) were measured in isolated gill cells stimulated with calcium ionophore A23187. PGF(2 alpha) production in fish fed VO increased significantly between 0-7 wk before decreasing toward seawater transfer. After transfer, PGF(2 alpha), production increased to a peak at 35 wk. PGF(2 alpha) production in fish fed FO was not significantly altered during the trial period. The changes in PGF(3 alpha) production were broadly similar to those occurring with PGF(2 alpha), but the latter was always in excess of the former (2- to 4-fold). Plasma chloride concentrations in fish subjected to seawater challenge at 20 wk were significantly lower in fish fed VO compared to those fed FO. This study has provided new information on the changes in lipid metabolism which accompany parr-smolt transformation and suggests that diets which have a fatty acid composition more similar to that in aquatic invertebrates may be beneficial in effecting successful seawater adaptation.