Background: Coastal sediments in the northern Gulf of Mexico have a high potential of being contaminated by petroleum hydrocarbons, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), due to extensive petroleum exploration and transportation activities. In this study we evaluated the spatial distribution and contamination sources of PAHs, as well as the bioavailable fraction in the bulk PAH pool, in surface marsh and shelf sediments (top 5 cm) of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Results: PAH concentrations in this region ranged from 100 to 856 ng g−1 , with the highest concentrations in Mississippi River mouth sediments followed by marsh sediments and then the lowest concentrations in shelf sediments. The PAH concentrations correlated positively with atomic C/N ratios of sedimentary organic matter (OM), suggesting that terrestrial OM preferentially sorbs PAHs relative to marine OM. PAHs with 2 rings were more abundant than those with 5–6 rings in continental shelf sediments, while the opposite was found in marsh sediments. This distribution pattern suggests different contamination sources between shelf and marsh sediments. Based on diagnostic ratios of PAH isomers and principal component analysis, shelf sediment PAHs were petrogenic and those from marsh sediments were pyrogenic. The proportions of bioavailable PAHs in total PAHs were low, ranging from 0.02% to 0.06%, with higher fractions found in marsh than shelf sediments. Conclusion: PAH distribution and composition differences between marsh and shelf sediments were influenced by grain size, contamination sources, and the types of organic matter associated with PAHs. Concentrations of PAHs in the study area were below effects low-range, suggesting a low risk to organisms and limited transfer of PAHs into food web. From the source analysis, PAHs in shelf sediments mainly originated from direct petroleum contamination, while those in marsh sediments were from combustion of fossil fuels.