Ecosystem-based approaches (EBAs) to managing anthropogenic pressures on ecosystems, adapting to changes in ecosystem states (indicators of ecosystem health), and mitigating the impacts of state changes on ecosystem services are needed for sustainable development. EBAs are informed by integrated ecosystem assessments (IEAs) that must be compiled and updated frequently for EBAs to be effective. Frequently updated IEAs depend on the sustained provision of data and information on pressures, state changes, and impacts of state changes on services. Nowhere is this truer than in the coastal zone, where people and ecosystem services are concentrated and where anthropogenic pressures converge. This study identifies the essential indicator variables required for the sustained provision of frequently updated IEAs, and offers an approach to establishing a global network of coastal observations within the framework of the Global Ocean Observing System. The need for and challenges of capacity-building are highlighted, and examples are given of current programmes that could contribute to the implementation of a coastal ocean observing system of systems on a global scale. This illustrates the need for new approaches to ocean governance that can achieve coordinated integration of existing programmes and technologies as a first step towards this goal.