Bacteria often interact with their environment through extracellular molecules that increase access to limiting resources. These secretions can act as public goods, creating incentives for exploiters to invade and “steal” public goods away from producers. This phenomenon has been studied extensively in vitro, but little is known about the occurrence and impact of public good exploiters in the environment. Here, we develop a genomic approach to systematically identify bacteria that can exploit public goods produced during the degradation of polysaccharides. Focusing on chitin, a highly abundant marine biopolymer, we show that public good exploiters are active in natural chitin degrading microbial communities, invading early during colonization, and potentially hindering degradation. In contrast to in vitro studies, we find that exploiters and degraders belong to distant lineages, facilitating their coexistence. Our approach opens novel avenues to use the wealth of genomic data available to infer ecological roles and interactions among microbes.