Fate sealed

Published: Thursday 15 August 2002

In deep trouble In what appears to be the 1988 tragedy revisited, carcasses of seals are piling up along the North Sea shores. Researchers fear the return of the killer virus that killed 18,000 seals on uk coasts 14 years ago. Since May 2002, the epidemic has killed 700 seals off Danish and Dutch coasts.

Scientists have, in fact, warned that the phocine distemper virus could spread to endangered seal species and wipe them out. However, uk's department of environment, food and rural affairs allays fears, pointing out that a network of seal rescue centres has been in place ever since the 1988 tragedy. The department believes that it is too soon to predict the consequences of the latest occurrence.

Seals cover vast stretches in search of food and congregate in colonies. The spread of infection within a group is, therefore, rapid and swift. "Its damage potential really depends on the behaviour of the seal," says John Harwood, director of the sea mammals research unit at St Andrew's University in Scotland. He adds, "Even if the seals stay at home a bit more, it may be sufficient to stop and check the disease from turning into a full-blown epidemic."

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