The embryos of the sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus are capable of surviving chronic exposure to inorganic sodium phosphate and organic triethyl phosphate concentrations as high as 6 and 1000 mg l-1 seawater, respectively. However, chronic exposure to sub-lethal concentrations of these phosphates may cause arrested or abnormal embryonic development. We measured fertilization success and percentages of normal, arrested and abnormal embryos exposed to low, medium and high sub-lethal concentrations of inorganic and organic phosphate. Fertilization success was significantly reduced in all phosphate treatments. After attaining the 4-cell stage, embryos exposed to the highest phosphate concentrations displayed arrested development. Percentages of abnormally developing embryos showed a strong concentration dose-response with a significant increase in abnormal embryonic development with increasing phosphate concentration. Overall, these results indicate that the gametes and embryos of L. variegatus may provide a rapid and sensitive model bioassay for the evaluation of phosphate pollutants in marine systems. Our findings also indicate that shallow-water populations of L. variegatus spawning in areas subjected to inorganic and organic phosphate pollutants may suffer detrimental effects on fertilization and embryonic development. © 2001 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.