The barrier defences and acellular innate immune proteins play critical roles during the early-stage fish embryos prior to the development of functional organ systems. The innate immune proteins in the yolk of embryos are of maternal origin. Maternal stress affects the maternal-to-embryo transfer of these proteins and, therefore, environmental stressors may change the course of embryo development, including embryonic immunocompetency, via their deleterious effect on maternal physiology. This review focuses on the associations that exist between maternal stress, maternal endocrine disturbance and the responses of the acellular innate immune proteins of early-stage fish embryos. Early-stage teleostean embryos are dependent upon the adult female for the formation of the zona pellucida as an essential barrier defence, for their supply of nutrients, and for the innate immunity proteins and antibodies that are transferred from the maternal circulation to the oocytes; maternally derived hormones are also transferred, some of which (such as cortisol) are known to exert a suppressive action on some aspects of the immune defences. This review summarizes what is known about the effects of oocyte cortisol content on the immune system components in early embryos. The review also examines recent evidence that embryonic cells during early cleavage have the capacity to respond to increased maternal cortisol transfer; this emphasizes the importance of maternal and early immune competence on the later life of fishes, both in the wild and in intensive culture.