A good understanding of social factors that lead to marine ecological change is important to developing sustainable global fisheries. We used balanced panel models and conducted cross-national time-series analyses (1970-2010) of 122 nations to examine how economic prosperity and population growth affected the sustainability of marine ecosystems. We used catches in economic exclusive zone (EEZ); mean trophic level of fishery landings (MTL); primary production required to sustain catches (expressed as percentage of local primary production [%PPR]); and an index of ecosystem overfishing (i.e., the loss in secondary production index [L index]) as indicators of ecological change in marine ecosystems. The EEZ catch, %PPR, and L index declined gradually after gross domestic product (GDP) per capita reached $15,000, $14,000, and $19,000, respectively, and MTL increased steadily once GDP per capita exceeded $20,000. These relationships suggest that economic growth and biodiversity conservation are compatible goals. However, increasing human populations would degrade marine ecosystems. Specifically, a doubling of human population caused an increase in the %PPR of 17.1% and in the L index of 0.0254 and a decline in the MTL of 0.176. A 1% increase in human population resulted in a 0.744% increase in EEZ catch. These results highlight the importance of considering social and economic factors in developing sustainable fisheries management policy.