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Reproductive failure in common seals feeding on fish from polluted coastal waters


The population of common seal Phoca vitulina in the westernmost part of the Wadden Sea, The Netherlands, has collapsed during the past few decades1,2. Between 1950 and 1975 the population dropped from more than 3,000 to less than 500 animals. Comparative studies of common seal populations from different parts of the Wadden Sea reveal that pup production has declined sharply only in the western (Dutch) part2–4. A comparative toxicological study5 on the levels of heavy metals and organochlorines in tissues of seals from the western and northern parts of the Wadden Sea shows that only the polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels differ significantly. This is predominantly a result of PCB pollution from the river Rhine6–9, which mainly affects the western (Dutch) part. PCBs are thought to be responsible for the low rate of reproduction in Dutch common seals on the basis of epidemiological and experimental data on the ability of PCBs to interfere with mammalian reproduction5,10. Here I report that reproductive failure in common seals from the Dutch Wadden Sea is related to feeding on fish from that polluted area. This is the first demonstration of a causal relationship between naturally occurring levels of pollutants and a physiological response in marine mammals.

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Reijnders, P. Reproductive failure in common seals feeding on fish from polluted coastal waters. Nature 324, 456–457 (1986).

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