Abstract Turbot ( Scophthalmus maximus) were exposed to two sublethal concentrations (1 and 10 mg metal/l) of cadmium (8.9 and 89 μM Cd), copper (15.26 and 152.6 μM Cu) and zinc (15.3 and 153 μM Zn) for 7 days, and afterwards were maintained depurating for 14 days. Immunoreactive metallothioneins ( irMTs) and metal ions were localized in the branchial epithelium by immunohistochemistry (using an anti-Cod MT antibody) and autometallography (AMG), respectively. Metal ions were demonstrated by AMG as black silver deposits (BSD), mainly in mucocytes (MC) and to a lesser extent in the other branchial cell-types (respiratory cells (RC), chloride cells (CC) and basal layer cells (BLC)). Irrespective of the metal supplied, BSD were rapidly visualized in MC after 1 h of exposure. This accumulation did not increase with increasing exposure time and concentration. Metallothionein expression was mainly observed in mature CC in the interlamellar space for all exposure conditions and it was shown that all mature cells express the same amount of irMT. The number of CC exhibiting irMT in metal-exposed turbots increased following short exposure times (1 h–1 day) in the filament epithelium and following longer exposure times (1–7 days) in the secondary lamellae. Total levels of irMT in the gills (quantified by image analysis and densitometry) increased significantly in metal-exposed turbot and were related to increased exposure times. It can be concluded that the total content of irMT in the gills of metal-exposed turbot is governed by changes in the number of mature CC expressing the protein. The quantification of total irMT in branchial CC can be considered as a reliable biomarker of metal exposure since reflects changes in metal bioavailability. This approach based on cell-selective immunohistochemistry can be simplified by only quantifying the number of mature CC. In addition, the dramatic increase of CC in the gills that produces epithelial thickening of the FE enhances migration of CC up to the edge of the SL and provokes the hypertrophy and fusion of secondary lamellae can be considered as unspecific biomarkers of effect indicating disturbed health in turbot.