Determining the genotoxic effects of pollutants has long been a priority in Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA) for coastal ecosystems, especially of complex areas such as estuaries and other confined waterbodies. The acknowledged link between DNA damage, mutagenicity and carcinogenicity to the exposure to certain toxicants has been responsible to the growing interest in determining the genotoxic effects of xenobiotics to wildlife as a measure of environmental risk. The comet assay, although widely employed in in vivo and in vitro toxicology, still holds many constraints in ERA, in large part owing to difficulties in obtaining conclusive cause–effect relationships from complex environments. Nevertheless, these challenges do not hinder the attempts to apply the alkaline comet assay on sentinel organisms, wild or subjected to bioassays in or ex situ (from fish to molluscs) as well to standardise protocols and establish general guidelines to the interpretation of findings. Fish have been regarded as an appealing subject due to the ease of performing the comet assay in whole blood. However, the application of the comet assay is becoming increasingly common in invertebrates (e.g. in molluscan haemocytes and solid tissues such as gills). Virtually all sorts of results have been obtained from the application of the comet assay in ERA (null, positive and inconclusive). However, it has become clear that interpreting DNA damage data from wild organisms is particularly challenging due to their ability to adapt to continuous environmental stressors, including toxicants. Also, the comet assay in non-model organisms for the purpose of ERA implies different constraints, assumptions and interpretation of findings, compared with the in vitro procedures from which most guidelines have been derived. This paper critically reviews the application of the comet assay in ERA, focusing on target organisms and tissues; protocol developments, case studies plus data handling and interpretation.