The study of breathing in fishes has featured prominently in Journal of Experimental Biology (JEB), particularly during the latter half of the past century. Indeed, many of the seminal discoveries in this important sub-field of comparative respiratory physiology were reported first in JEB. The period spanning 1960–1990 (the ‘golden age of comparative respiratory physiology’) witnessed intense innovation in the development of methods to study the control of breathing. Many of the guiding principles of piscine ventilatory control originated during this period, including our understanding of the dominance of O2 as the driver of ventilation in fish. However, a critical issue – the identity of the peripheral O2 chemoreceptors – remained unanswered until methods for cell isolation, culture and patch-clamp recording established that gill neuroepithelial cells (NECs) respond to hypoxia in vitro. Yet, the role of the NECs and other putative peripheral or central chemoreceptors in the control of ventilation in vivo remains poorly understood. Further progress will be driven by the implementation of genetic tools, most of which can be used in zebrafish (Danio rerio). These tools include CRISPR/Cas9 for selective gene knockout, and Tol2 systems for transgenesis, the latter of which enables optogenetic stimulation of cellular pathways, cellular ablation and in vivo cell-specific biosensing. Using these methods, the next period of discovery will see the identification of the peripheral sensory pathways that initiate ventilatory responses, and will elucidate the nature of their integration within the central nervous system and their link to the efferent motor neurons that control breathing.