Abstract Background The delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) is a pelagic fish species listed as endangered under both the USA Federal and Californian State Endangered Species Acts and considered an indicator of ecosystem health in its habitat range, which is limited to the Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary in California, USA. Anthropogenic contaminants are one of multiple stressors affecting this system, and among them, current-use insecticides are of major concern. Interrogative tools are required to successfully monitor effects of contaminants on the delta smelt, and to research potential causes of population decline in this species. We have created a microarray to investigate genome-wide effects of potentially causative stressors, and applied this tool to assess effects of the pyrethroid insecticide esfenvalerate on larval delta smelt. Selected genes were further investigated as molecular biomarkers using quantitative PCR analyses. Results Exposure to esfenvalerate affected swimming behavior of larval delta smelt at concentrations as low as 0.0625 μg.L-1, and significant differences in expression were measured in genes involved in neuromuscular activity. Alterations in the expression of genes associated with immune responses, along with apoptosis, redox, osmotic stress, detoxification, and growth and development appear to have been invoked by esfenvalerate exposure. Swimming impairment correlated significantly with expression of aspartoacylase (ASPA), an enzyme involved in brain cell function and associated with numerous human diseases. Selected genes were investigated for their use as molecular biomarkers, and strong links were determined between measured downregulation in ASPA and observed behavioral responses in fish exposed to environmentally relevant pyrethroid concentrations. Conclusions The results of this study show that microarray technology is a useful approach in screening for, and generation of molecular biomarkers in endangered, non-model organisms, identifying specific genes that can be directly linked with sublethal toxicological endpoints; such as changes in expression levels of neuromuscular genes resulting in measurable swimming impairments. The developed microarrays were successfully applied on larval fish exposed to esfenvalerate, a known contaminant of the Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary, and has permitted the identification of specific biomarkers which could provide insight into the factors contributing to delta smelt population decline.