The catecholamines dopamine and noradrenaline provide some of the major neuromodulatory systems with far-ranging projections in the brain and spinal cord of vertebrates. However, development of these complex systems is only partially understood. Zebrafish provide an excellent model for genetic analysis of neuronal specification and axonal projections in vertebrates. Here, we analyze the ontogeny of the catecholaminergic projections in zebrafish embryos and larvae up to the fifth day of development and establish the basic scaffold of catecholaminergic connectivity. The earliest dopaminergic diencephalospinal projections do not navigate along the zebrafish primary neuron axonal scaffold but establish their own tracts at defined ventrolateral positions. By using genetic tools, we study quantitative and qualitative contributions of noradrenergic and defined dopaminergic groups to the catecholaminergic scaffold. Suppression of Tfap2a activity allows us to eliminate noradrenergic contributions, and depletion of Otp activity deletes mammalian A11-like Otp-dependent ventral diencephalic dopaminergic groups. This analysis reveals a predominant contribution of Otp-dependent dopaminergic neurons to diencephalospinal as well as hypothalamic catecholaminergic tracts. In contrast, noradrenergic projections make only a minor contribution to hindbrain and spinal catecholaminergic tracts. Furthermore, we can demonstrate that, in zebrafish larvae, ascending catecholaminergic projections to the telencephalon are generated exclusively by Otp-dependent diencephalic dopaminergic neurons as well as by hindbrain noradrenergic groups. Our data reveal the Otp-dependent A11-type dopaminergic neurons as the by far most prominent dopaminergic system in larval zebrafish. These findings are consistent with a hypothesis that Otp-dependent dopaminergic neurons establish the major modulatory system for somatomotor and somatosensory circuits in larval fish. J. Comp. Neurol. 518:439–458, 2010. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.