North Sea seabirds and marine mammals: pathology and ecotoxicology

Research project MN/DD1/005 (Research action MN)

Persons :

Description :

In winter large colonies of pelagic birds settle on the Flanders Banks. In the past they were also largely frequented by marine mammals. Now they are only rarely to be seen and every year, some of them and many hundreds of birds are washed up along the Belgian coast. These species should be protected and the purpose of this research project is to study the state of health of these populations, trends over time, the pathologies observed and the pollutants associated, as also the possible causes of abnormal deaths. The most significant damage to seabirds caused by human activities seems to be the pollution by hydrocarbons, but the actual reasons why birds wich are not poisoned by oil fuel wash ashore and the rarity of mammals are still unknown (heavy traffic shipping routes, other chemical pollution, decrease in the availability of food, disease, etc.?).

The Project

To examine the greatest possible number of seabirds and mammals which wash up on the Belgian coast: perform autopsies and take the samples needed to determine what pathogenic agents and pollutants are present.

To examine individuals, insofar as possible, animals accidentally caught in fishing nets, to determine how representative the individuals collected from the beaches are of the natural population.

To study wild populations, in the field, so as to reach a better understanding of their ecology and behaviour and estimate the actual impact of hydrocarbons on the seabird population.

To study, in the laboratory, the effects of the various toxic substances to which these animals are subjected (hydrocarbons, heavy metals, etc.) and the efficacy of any physiological detoxification mechanisms which such animals develop in response to pollutants.

The Partners

The research network consists of the following research teams:

The Oceanology Laboratory of the University of Liege (Professor J.-M. Bouquegneau, coordinator);
The Pathological Anatomy Department of the University of Liege (Professor F. Coignoul);
The Laboratory for Ecotoxicology and Polar Ecology of the (Flemish) Free University of Brussels (Professor C. Joiris);
The Institute for Nature Conservation of the Flemish Community (Professor P. Meire).


To conduct such research successfully requires a multidisciplinary approach, i.e. one which involves the cooperation of specialists from various disciplines. The multiplicity of examinations to be effected on single animals is an original aspect of the research network's approach.

Lesions will be studied by veterinarian anatomo-pathologists (Dr. T Jauniaux of the Department of Pathological Anatomy), ecotoxicologists will study levels of contamination and the effects of pollution (V. Debacker and S. Pillet from the Oceanology Laboratory and Dr. L. Holsbeek from the Laboratory for Ecotoxicology and Polar Ecology) and observations in the field will be performed by ecologists (J. Van waeyenberg from the Institute for Nature Conservation).

The following will also be involved in the research: Dr. J. Van Gompel, a veterinarian who will cooperate in collecting samples and in necropsies; J. Tavernier of the Royal Institute for Natural Science of Belgium (IRSNB) and Dr. T. Jacques of the Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea (MUMM) who will cooperate in collecting samples in the field and for the MUMNS (MUMM) itself in developing a database.

Documentation :

For further information please contact;
Université de Liège - Laboratoire d'Océanologie
B6 Sart Tilman, 4000 Liège
Tel: +32-4-366 33 21 Fax:+32-4-366 45 21 E-mail:

Les oiseaux et les mammifères marins de la mer du Nord: pathologie et écotoxicologie: résumé    Bruxelles: SSTC, 2002 (SP1070)
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Zeevogels en zeezoogdieren van de Noordzee: pathologie en ecotoxicologie: samenvatting    Brussel: DWTC, 2002 (SP1071)
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North Seabirds and marine mammals: pathology and ecotoxicology: summary    Brussels: OSTC, 2002 (SP1072)
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North Sea seabirds and marine mammals: pathology and ecotoxicology : final report  Debacker, V. - Coignoul, F. - Das, K. ... et al  Brussels : Federale Science Policy, 2004 (SP1385)
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