Aim: The global sprawl of marine hard infrastructure (e.g. breakwaters, sea walls and jetties) can extensively modify coastal seascapes, but the knowledge of such impacts remains limited to local scales. We examined the regional‐scale effects of marine artificial habitats on the distribution and abundance of assemblages of ascidians, a key group of ecosystem engineer species in benthic fouling systems.
Location: Five hundred kilometers of coastline in the North Adriatic Sea.
Methods: We sampled a variety of natural reefs, marine infrastructures and marinas, and tested hypotheses about the role of habitat type and location in influencing the relative distribution and abundance of both native and non‐indigenous species.
Results: Assemblages differed significantly between natural and artificial habitats and among different types of artificial habitats. Non‐indigenous species were 2–3 times more abundant on infrastructures built along sedimentary coastlines than on natural rocky reefs or infrastructures built close to rocky coastlines. Conversely, native species were twice as abundant on natural reefs than on nearby infrastructures and were scarce to virtually absent on infrastructures built along sedimentary coasts. The species composition of assemblages in artificial habitats was more similar to that of marinas than of natural reefs, independently of their location.
Main conclusions: Our results show that marine infrastructures along sandy shores disproportionally favour non‐indigenous over native hard bottom species, affecting their spread at regional scales. This is particularly concerning for coastal areas that have low natural densities of rocky reef habitats. We discuss design and management options to improve the quality as habitat of marine infrastructures and to favour their preferential use by native species over non‐indigenous ones.