The meiobenthic fauna of the Westerschelde, a highly polluted and physically disturbed estuary in the south-west Netherlands, was investigated. Samples were taken in spring from six transects, including the intertidal, subtidal and channel area, and located along the salinity gradient. The samples were subdivided into slices to examine the vertical distribution of meiobenthos. Meiobenthos densities were higher in the intertidal than in most permanently submersed areas; the subtidal sites below 7 salinity were nearly devoid of meiobenthic life. Nematodes were by far the most abundant meiobenthic organisms in the intertidal, but were less dominant in the other areas. Gastrotrichs, turbellarians, copepods and large ciliates were usually more numerous in the subtidal and channels compared to the intertidal, both in relative and absolute terms. Vertical distribution of the meiobenthos was rather heterogeneous. Most intertidal stations exhibited a subsurface density peak, whereas in the subtidal and channel area, both subsurface and surface maxima were found. The nematode fauna was examined in more detail and the distributional characteristics of the most important species, with respect to salinity, grain size, water depth and sediment depth were reported. The majority of species had their centre of distribution in the intertidal, although some extended substantially into the subtidal zone. Only a few species had a predominantly subtidal distribution. Most nematode species penetrated relatively deep into the sediment and only some species were real surface dwellers. The nematode diversity per unit of surface reflected more or less the density differences and was higher in the intertidal than in the subtidal sites within a comparable salinity regime. When expressed per common number of individuals, however, there were no differences in diversity in the different areas. Canonical correspondence analysis showed sediment depth to be as important as water depth, salinity or sedimentary characteristics in the determination of community structure. Intertidal communities exhibited a well-developed community gradient with depth into the sediment, whereas the vertical structure of subtidal and channel stations was different from the intertidal zonation and in some cases showed a distorted pattern. This was probably caused by sediment disturbance due to higher current velocities and dredging activities in these regions. It is argued that, although at some subtidal sites a characteristic subtidal nematode population may persist, in many cases the sublittoral of the Westerschelde is either too dynamic an environment or food availability is too low to meet requirements for growth and reproduction of the nematodes. The populations are probably not self-sustaining but persist due to continuous replenishment from less harsh areas by means of the estuarine circulation.