Plastics and sedimentation foster the spread of a non-native macroalga in seagrass meadows.
Plastics are found in marine environments worldwide, and their effects on macrophytes (seagrasses and macroalgae) colonizing sandy bottoms are still poorly known. Seagrass meadows are valuable but declining ecosystems due to local and global-change related stressors, including sediment disturbance and introduced macroalgae. Understanding whether plastics pose a further threat to seagrasses is critically important. In two simultaneous additive experiments performed in an aquaculture tank, we examined the individual and combined effects of macroplastics (non-biodegradable high-density polyethylene and biodegradable starch-based) and sedimentation (no and repeated sedimentation) on the performance (in terms of biomass and architectural variables) of a native Mediterranean seagrass (Cymodocea nodosa) and an introduced macroalga (Caulerpa cylindracea), and on the intensity of their interactions. Macroplastics were still present in sediments after 18 months. Cymodocea nodosa produced a greater biomass and longer horizontal rhizome internodes forming clones with more spaced shoots probably to escape from plastics. Plastics prevented C. nodosa to react to sedimentation by increasing vertical rhizome growth. Under C. cylindracea invasion, C. nodosa allocated more biomass to roots, particularly to fine roots. In the presence of C. nodosa, C. cylindracea performance was reduced. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic and sedimentation shifted species interactions from competitive to neutral. These results suggest that both HDPE and biodegradable starch-based macroplastics, if deposited on marine bottoms, could make seagrasses vulnerable to sedimentation and reduce plant cover within meadows. HDPE plastic and sedimentation could contribute to the decline of seagrass habitats by facilitating the spread of non-native macroalgae within meadows. Overall, the study highlights the urgent need to implement more effective post-marketing management actions to prevent a further entering of plastics in natural environments in the future, as well as to establish to conservation measures specifically tailored to protect seagrass habitats from plastic pollution.