Petroleum hydrocarbons are common contaminants in marine and freshwater aquatic habitats, often occurring as a result of oil spillage. Rapid and reliable on-site tools for measuring the bioavailable hydrocarbon fractions, i.e., those that are most likely to cause toxic effects or are available for biodegradation, would assist in assessing potential ecological damage and following the progress of cleanup operations. Here we examined the suitability of a set of different rapid bioassays (2-3 h) using bacteria expressing the LuxAB luciferase to measure the presence of short-chain linear alkanes, monoaromatic and polyaromatic compounds, biphenyls, and DNA-damaging agents in seawater after a laboratory-scale oil spill. Five independent spills of 20 mL of NSO-1 crude oil with 2 L of seawater (North Sea or Mediterranean Sea) were carried out in 5 L glass flasks for periods of up to 10 days. Bioassays readily detected ephemeral concentrations of short-chain alkanes and BTEX (i.e., benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes) in the seawater within minutes to hours after the spill, increasing to a maximum of up to 80 muM within 6-24 h, after which they decreased to low or undetectable levels. The strong decrease in short-chain alkanes and BTEX may have been due to their volatilization or biodegradation, which was supported by changes in the microbial community composition. Two- and three-ring PAHs appeared in the seawater phase after 24 h with a concentration up to 1 muM naphthalene equivalents and remained above 0.5 muM for the duration of the experiment. DNA-damage-sensitive bioreporters did not produce any signal with the oil-spilled aqueous-phase samples, whereas bioassays for (hydroxy)biphenyls showed occasional responses. Chemical analysis for alkanes and PAHs in contaminated seawater samples supported the bioassay data, but did not show the typical ephemeral peaks observed with the bioassays. We conclude that bacterium-based bioassays can be a suitable alternative for rapid on-site quantitative measurement of hydrocarbons in seawater.