The Sulu-Sulawesi Sea, with neighboring Indonesian Seas and South China Sea, lies at the center of the world's tropical marine biodiversity. Encircled by 3 populous, developing nations, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, the Sea and its adjacent coastal and terrestrial ecosystems, supports ca. 33 million people, most with subsistence livelihoods heavily reliant on its renewable natural resources. These resources are being impacted severely by rapid population growth (> 2% yr−1, with expected doubling by 2035) and widespread poverty, coupled with increasing international market demand and rapid technological changes, compounded by inefficiencies in governance and a lack of awareness and/or acceptance of some laws among local populations, particularly in parts of the Philippines and Indonesia. These key root causes all contribute to illegal practices and corruption, and are resulting in severe resource depletion and degradation of water catchments, river, lacustrine, estuarine, coastal, and marine ecosystems. The Sulu-Sulawesi Sea forms a major geopolitical focus, with porous borders, transmigration, separatist movements, piracy, and illegal fishing all contributing to environmental degradation, human suffering and political instability, and inhibiting strong trilateral support for interventions. This review analyzes these multifarious environmental and socioeconomic impacts and their root causes, provides a future prognosis of status by 2020, and recommends policy options aimed at amelioration through sustainable management and development.