Institute of Fisheries Ecology

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ICON project: How contaminants affect the North Sea


 (c) Thomas Lang

ICON Project: Integrated assessment of the impacts of contaminants on the North Sea ecosystem

How do contaminants act on the environmental status of the sea? This is studied by scientists of the Thünen Institute of Fisheries Ecology In the framework of the international ICON project (Integrated assessment of the impact of conatminants on the North Sea). They evaluate the suitability of the research and assessment methods applied for a North Sea wide monitoring programme.

Background and Objective

The regional marine protection conventions (OSPAR, HELCOM) and the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) call for monitoring of the marine environment in order to protect it against manmade hazardous substances and their adverse biological effects. For this purpose, a wide range of methods for the  detection of contaminants and their biological effects has been developed since a long time, which have been applied successfully in national and international programmes. However, these methods have only rarely been used in a coordinated and integrated manner and, thus, large scale assessments of the status of the marine environment were difficult to achieve so far. Initiated by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and the Oslo and Paris Commission for the protection of the marine environment of the North Atlantic (OSPAR), experts developed concepts and strategies for an integrated chemical and biological monitoring and assessment of hazardous substances, the suitability of which was tested with the ICON project using the North Sea as an example. Experts from institutes around the North Sea built a consortium for planning of the studies, organising sampling campaigns in coastal areas and in offshore regions (onboard research vessels) and analysing and assessing the data obtained.The activities are ongoing and will probably be finalised end of 2014.


In the framework of the international ICON Project, scientists study contaminant levels in the North Sea and their biological effects are studied in fish, mussel and snail species in the North Sea and some reference areas (Baltic Sea, Iceland, English Channel). The sampling took place in 2008 during a number of cruises with research vessels from Germany, the UK, France and The Netherlands. The FI contributed with two sampling campaigns carried out onboard RV Walther Herwig III and was in charge of the fish disease studies and the analysis of the data obtained.

Our Research Questions

What is the status of the North Sea ecosystem with regard to anthropogenic contaminants and their biological effects?

Which biological effects methods are suitable for an integrated chemical and bilogical monitoring programme in the North Sea?

Can the assessment tools and criteria developed by ICES and OSPAR be applied using the practical example of the North Sea situtaion?


Methods for the integrated monitoring and assessment of contaminants and their biological effects in fish and mussel species from the North Sea and references areas (western Baltic Sea, Iceland) were developed and tested. For a North Sea wide monitoring, an integrated approach is recommended, which implies a parallel measurement of concentration of priority contaminants  and of their biological effects. The latter should include molecular and cellular responses as well as effects at the individual and population level. The data analysis and publication of results are presently underway.


Involved Thünen-Partners

Involved external Thünen-Partners


5.2007 - 12.2014

More Information

Projekt type:
Project status: finished


Results 1 - 5 of 13

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  1. Lang T, Feist SW, Stentiford GD, Bignell JP, Vethaak AD, Wosniok W (2017) Diseases of dab (Limanda limanda): Analysis and assessment of data on externally visible diseases, macroscopic liver neoplasms and liver histopathology in the North Sea, Baltic Sea and off Iceland . Mar Environ Res 124:61-69, DOI:10.1016/j.marenvres.2015.12.009
  2. Hylland K, Skei BB, Brunborg G, Lang T, Gubbins MJ, Le Goff J, Burgeot T (2017) DNA damage in dab (Limanda limanda) and haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus) from European seas. Mar Environ Res 124:54-60, DOI:10.1016/j.marenvres.2016.01.001
  3. Hylland K, Burgeot T, Martinez-Gomez C, Lang T, Robinson CD, Svavarsson J, Thain JE, Vethaak AD, Gubbins MJ (2017) How can we quantify impacts of contaminants in marine ecosystems? : The ICON project. Mar Environ Res 124:2-10, DOI:10.1016/j.marenvres.2015.11.006
  4. Hylland K, Robinson CD, Burgeot T, Martinez-Gomez C, Lang T, Svavarsson J, Thain JE, Vethaak AD, Gubbins MJ (2017) Integrated chemical and biological assessment of contaminant impacts in selected European coastal and offshore marine areas. Mar Environ Res 124:130-138, DOI:10.1016/j.marenvres.2016.05.014
  5. Vethaak AD, Davies IM, Thain JE, Gubbins MJ, Martinez-Gomez C, Robinson CD, Moffat CF, Burgeot T, Maes T, Wosniok W, Giltrap M, Lang T, Hylland K (2017) Integrated indicator framework and methodology for monitoring and assessment of hazardous substances and their effects in the marine environment. Mar Environ Res 124:11-20, DOI:10.1016/j.marenvres.2015.09.010

Results 1 - 5 of 13

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