We compiled information from the literature on the taxonomic distributions in extant teleost fishes of alternative sex-determination systems: male-heterogametic (XY) gonochorism, female-heterogametic (ZW) gonochorism, hermaphroditism, unisexuality, and environmental dependency. Then, using recently published molecular phylogenies based on whole-genomic or partial mitochondrial DNA sequences, we inferred the histories and evolutionary transitions between these reproductive modes by employing maximum parsimony and maximum likelihood methods of phylogenetic character mapping. Across a broad teleost phylogeny involving 25 taxonomic orders, a highly patchy distribution of different sex-determination mechanisms was uncovered, implying numerous transitions between alternative modes, but this heterogeneity also precluded definitive statements about ancestral states for most clades. Closer inspection of family-level and genus-level phylogenies within each of four orders further bolstered the conclusion that shifts in sex-determining modes are evolutionarily frequent and involve a variety of distinct ancestral-descendant pathways. For possible reasons discussed herein, the evolutionary lability of sex-determining modes in fishes contrasts strikingly with the evolutionary conservatism of sex determination within both mammals and birds. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 87, 83–93.