Abstract Innovative research relating oceans and human health is advancing our understanding of disease-causing organisms in coastal ecosystems. Novel techniques are elucidating the loading, transport and fate of pathogens in coastal ecosystems, and identifying sources of contamination. This research is facilitating improved risk assessments for seafood consumers and those who use the oceans for recreation. A number of challenges still remain and define future directions of research and public policy. Sample processing and molecular detection techniques need to be advanced to allow rapid and specific identification of microbes of public health concern from complex environmental samples. Water quality standards need to be updated to more accurately reflect health risks and to provide managers with improved tools for decision-making. Greater discrimination of virulent versus harmless microbes is needed to identify environmental reservoirs of pathogens and factors leading to human infections. Investigations must include examination of microbial community dynamics that may be important from a human health perspective. Further research is needed to evaluate the ecology of non-enteric water-transmitted diseases. Sentinels should also be established and monitored, providing early warning of dangers to ecosystem health. Taken together, this effort will provide more reliable information about public health risks associated with beaches and seafood consumption, and how human activities can affect their exposure to disease-causing organisms from the oceans.