Marine and coastal policy in the UK has faced a number of significant changes in recent years, most notably the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act in 2009. These changes have brought significant challenges and opportunities for all those involved in the management and use of the UK's marine and coastal environment. This new era of marine policy inspired the UK's first Marine and Coastal Policy forum held in June 2011. In this introductory paper the global context of marine policy changes and the themes which emerged from the forum, forming the basis of the articles in this special issue, are outlined. It is concluded that there is a high level of engagement, capacity and willingness of key stakeholders to work collaboratively to address the environmental, social and economic complexities of managing the marine and coastal environment. It is both evident and encouraging that progress is being made and the many challenges faced in this new era give rise to a number of opportunities to develop new ideas and effective mechanisms for finding solutions.