2002 Outbreak May Claim 10,000 Harbor Seals
A researcher gathers samples from this summers outbreak along the Swedish west coast.
Photo by: Tero Härköne, Göteborg University.
Scientists from Göteborg University in Sweden and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) report in an upcoming issue of the journal Ecology Letters that the 2002 outbreak of phocine distemper virus, or PDV, in European harbor seals may reduce the population by more than half and that future outbreaks with similar characteristics would significantly increase the risk of population declines. Their findings are the first epidemiological data reported on the 2002 outbreak, which is still underway, and may help predict the recurrence of the outbreaks and the impact on the long-term growth and survival of the European harbor seal population.
The current outbreak of PDV, also called the seal plague, was first identified in May 2002 when large numbers of dead seals were reported in Denmark. By mid-September the number of deaths had passed 6,000 in Denmark and had spread to the Baltic, the Wadden Sea and East Anglia. A 1988 outbreak from the previously undescribed virus spread from Denmark to Sweden, the Netherlands and then to England, Scotland and Ireland, in what is now believed to be the largest such event in any marine mammal population. Within seven months all major European harbor seal colonies had been affected by the virus, although the death rate varied from 15 to 58 percent among regions. The virus is thought to have been introduced to the European harbor seal population by migrating harp seals observed in Danish waters in 1987 and 1988. No outbreak of the virus had been reported since 1988 until this year.
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