The distribution of bacterial communities terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (T-RFLP) fingerprint patterns was evaluated at three proximal hydrocarbon-contaminated sites located within the harbour of Messina. In order to analyse the short-term variability of the individual terminal restriction fragment (T-RF) patterns, water samples were collected at the three sites on three occasions within 3 months (T(0), T(90) and T(91)). Four sample sizes, from 50 to 1000 ml for each collected sample, were analysed separately (36 total analysed samples) to evaluate the relationship between the sample size and the bacterial diversity estimates. The dominant T-RF groups mostly belonged to signatures of putative hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria, as revealed by the virtual analysis of the obtained bands. In order to test whether significant differences were occurring between the analysed samples, the Kruskal-Wallis non-parametric test was applied to the T-RF data set. Neither significant influence of the sample size nor short spatial variability within the three sampled sites was detected for each sampling time. On the contrary, significant temporal changes in the diversity of the bacterial communities were observed. These results were confirmed by the non-metric multidimensional scales (nMDS) analysis of the whole set of samples, which indicated three main groups corresponding to the three different sampling times. In summary, the T-RFLP technique, although a polymerase chain reaction-based method, proved to be a suitable technique for monitoring polluted marine environments, typically characterized by low diversity and high relative abundances of a few dominant groups.