In studies designed to investigate the environmental exposure of fish in Lake Erie tributaries, a benthic fish, the brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus), was collected from the industrially contaminated Detroit River, Ottawa River, Black River, Cuyahoga River-harbor and -upstream, Ashtabula River, Buffalo River, and Niagara River, and the non-industrialized Old Woman Creek during 1997-2000. Biliary benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P)- and naphthalene (NAPH)-type metabolites and the hepatosomatic index (HSI) were measured in fish and compared between different sites. Fish from all of the contaminated sites except Niagara River had significantly higher concentrations of both types of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) metabolites than fish from the Old Woman Creek. Concentrations of PAH metabolites in bile of fish were positively associated with concentrations of PAHs in sediments, supporting the use of bile metabolites as a measure of PAH exposure. Relatively low concentrations of PAHs detected in fish bile and sediments of the Niagara River, which had undergone extensive remediation, suggested a lowered PAH exposure for fish at this site. No apparent trend was observed in HSI between the industrialized and non-industrialized sites. This study demonstrates that biliary PAH metabolites are an effective indicator of exposure of fish to PAHs. However, because factors other than contamination could also affect the liver size of wild fish, HSI alone may be not a reliable biomarker for assessing contaminant stress. ?? 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.