Mass mortality of common eiders (Somateria mollissima) was observed in winter 1999/2000 in the Dutch Wadden Sea. Approximately 21,000 common eiders died. Dissected birds were severely emaciated and 94% were infected with the acanthocephalan parasite Profilicollis botulus. Green shore crabs (Carcinus maenas), intermediate hosts of the parasite, were slightly more ‘available’ than in other years, but parasite infections in the eiders were close to normal. Few eiders were oiled (5%), there were no toxicological, bacteriological, or virological explanations for the observed mortality. In the Wadden Sea, a wetland of international importance, mussel (Mytilus edulis) cultures occur in sublittoral areas, while mechanical cockle (Cerastoderma edule) fisheries are licensed annually after evaluation of available resources. The wintering eiders in 1999/2000 required c. 3.1 million kg ash-free dry mass, while information on mussel and cockle stocks (irrespective of accessibility and profitability) suggested a resource 4.7× the requirement of common eiders only. Food shortage is suggested to have caused the observed mortality, involving both principal (mussels and cockles) and secondary (Spisula) prey. Winter census reports showed shifts in wintering distribution of common eiders in the 1990s, indicating the utilisation of Spisula in the North Sea in poor food years in the Wadden Sea. Following particularly intense fisheries in summer 1999, attempts to feed on Spisula in winter 1999/2000 failed. It is hypothesised that overfishing of mussels and cockles in the Wadden Sea in the early 1990s resulted in structurally reduced food resources, contractions of the foraging area of common eiders, and increased use of secondary prey in the North Sea.