The usefulness of vertical rhizome growth as an early indicator of fish farm impacts to Posidonia oceanica meadows was tested by comparing annual estimates of vertical rhizome growth, quantified retrospectively, at distances ranging between 5 and 1200 m from fish cages at four Mediterranean locations (Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Spain). The Studied fish farms had been operating since, at least, 1997, producing between 150 and 1150 tons yr(-1) of sea bream (Sparus aurata) and sea bass (Dicentrachus labrax), and, at Italy, also sharpsnout sea bream (Diplodus puntazzo). The reconstructed vertical rhizome growth spanned from 19 to 25 years of growth, depending on sites, and the average vertical rhizome growth before the onset of fish farm operations ranged between 4.48 and 8.79 mm yr(-1). The vertical rhizome growth after the onset of farming activities declined significantly (t-test, P <0.05) from the control station (at > 800 m from the farm; vertical growth rate averaged 6.79, 5.52, 3.89 and 3.70 min yr(-1) at Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Spain control stations, respectively) to the impacted one (at 5-300 in from the farm; vertical growth rate was 4.82, 3.52, 2.77 and 1.92 min yr(-1) at Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Spain impacted stations, respectively) at each farm. Moreover, vertical growth significantly (t-test, P <0.05) declined by about twofold following the onset of fish farm operations for the extant meadow nearest to the cages, as well as those supporting intermediate impacts at distances 35-400 m front the cages. Vertical rhizome growth was not significantly affected after the onset of fish farm operations for the meadows located more than 800 m from the farm, except in those from the Italian site, the largest farm. Examination of the time course of vertical growth for individual rhizomes in the areas of the meadow nearest to the farms, except for those at Cyprus, showed that the decline in vertical growth was initiated within the year of the onset of farming activities, suggesting a negligible resistance of seagrass meadows to fish farm impacts. The results obtained confirm that fish farm activities strongly affect seagrass health on the surrounding meadows, and clearly demonstrate the value of reductions in vertical rhizome growth as an early warning symptom of stress and impacts to P. oceanica meadows. (c) 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.