The prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the marine environment is a growing concern, but the degree to which marine mammals, seabirds and fish harbor these organisms is not well documented. This project sought to identify the occurrence and patterns of antibiotic resistance in bacteria isolated from vertebrates of coastal waters in the northeastern United States. Four hundred and seventy-two isolates of clinical interest were tested for resistance to a suite of 16 antibiotics. Fifty-eight percent were resistant to at least one antibiotic, while 43% were resistant to multiple antibiotics. A multiple antibiotic resistance index value >or=0.2 was observed in 38% of the resistant pathogens, suggesting exposure of the animals to bacteria from significantly contaminated sites. Groups of antibiotics were identified for which bacterial resistance commonly co-occurred. Antibiotic resistance was more widespread in bacteria isolated from seabirds than marine mammals, and was more widespread in stranded or bycaught marine mammals than live marine mammals. Structuring of resistance patterns based on sample type (live/stranded/bycaught) but not animal group (mammal/bird/fish) was observed. These data indicate that antibiotic resistance is widespread in marine vertebrates, and they may be important reservoirs of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the marine environment.