We present the first epidemiological data on the 2002 outbreak of phocine distemper virus (PDV) in European harbour seals (Phoca vitulina). The epizootic curve to date supports a mortality rate and probability of infection identical to that of the 1988 outbreak, which killed 58% of the population. Thus immunity is playing no significant role in the dynamics of the current outbreak. Because the timing of the outbreak is important in determining local mortality rates, we predict higher mortality rates on the European continent than in Great Britain or Ireland. A stochastic model is used to quantify how recurrent epizootics affect the long-term growth, fluctuation, and persistence of the population. Recurrent PDV epizootics with the observed frequency and severity would reduce the long-term stochastic growth rate of the harbour seal population by half, and significantly increase the risk of quasi-extinction.