Mass mortalities of cultured zhikong scallops (Chlamys farreri) have occurred each summer in most culture areas of northern China since 1996. Among the hypothesized causes are high culture density, infectious disease and genetic inbreeding. To investigate these potential agents, C. farreri were deployed at three densities (low, medium and high) at three sites (Jiaonan, Penglai and Yantai) in the summer of 2000. Scallops were sampled for survival, growth and histopathology before, during and after a mortality episode. Most of the mortality occurred in July and August, during and toward the later part of the spawning season, when water temperature reached 23-26°C. Final cumulative mortalities reached 85% to 90% at all three sites. Scallops in the medium and high densities had higher initial death rates than did those at the low density. High densities also inhibited growth. Ciliates from the genus Trichodina, larvae of various organisms and anomalous secretions were observed in sections of the gill cavity, with highest prevalence during and at the end of the mortality period. Prokaryotic inclusion bodies were found in the soft tissues, but their prevalence was low and apparently without correlation with mortalities. Genetic analysis with random amplified polymorphic DNA markers showed slightly lower heterozygosity in the cultured stocks (0.301) than in the wild stocks (0.331). It is possible that the mortalities are caused by a combination of several factors such as stress associated with reproduction, high temperature, overcrowding and poor circulation in the grow-out cages, opportunistic invaders or pathogens, and possibly inbreeding.