Escalating pressures caused by the combined effects of population growth, demographic shifts, economic development and global climate change pose unprecedented threats to sandy beach ecosystems worldwide. Conservation of beaches as functional ecosystems and protection of their unique biodiversity requires management interventions that not only mitigate threats to physical properties of sandy shores, but also include ecological dimensions. Yet, beach management remains overwhelmingly focused on engineering interventions. Here we summarise the key outcomes of several workshops, held during the 2006 Sandy Beach Ecology Symposium in Vigo, Spain, that addressed issues of climate change, beach management and sampling methodology. Because efficient communication between managers and ecologists is critical, we summarise the salient features of sandy beaches as functional ecosystems in 50 ‘key statements’; these provide a succinct synopsis of the main structural and functional characteristics of these highly dynamic systems. Key outcomes of the workshops include a set of recommendations on designs and methods for sampling the benthic infaunal communities of beaches, the identification of the main ecological effects caused by direct and indirect human interventions, the predicted consequence of climate change for beach ecosystems, and priority areas for future research.