Scientific and legal definitions of reefs

goldberg at goldberg at
Wed Feb 6 14:15:50 EST 2002

Dear Coral List:
The original inquiry that prompted so many responses is
whether there is a legal definition of 'reef'. The short
answer is no because, as some have pointed out, the term
itself is vague from almost any perspective except as
nautical jargon (e.g., a hazard to navigation(1). A
definition of coral reefs has generated a debate on many
issues including the geological perspectives of frame
building and net rates of accretion (2), vs. the
biological ones of what constitutes the biota and its
dynamics over time(3). There have even been disagreements
concerning the use of the term 'coral community'(4). Since
coral reefs may include (to be clear) 'living biotic
assemblages' with scleractinian coral cover ranging from 1.3
to nearly 100%(5), and may include appreciable contributions
from non-scleractinian as well as non-cnidarian sources(6),
it is doubtful that a consensual scientific definition of
coral reef will be forthcoming any time soon. A legal
definition of coral reefs and related environments is
another matter. The U.S. Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000
defines 'coral reef' as "any reefs or shoals composed
primarily of corals", and 'coral reef ecosystem' as "coral
and other species of reef organisms (including reef plants)
associated with coral reefs, and the nonliving environmental
factors that directly affect coral reefs, that together
function as an ecological unit in nature" (7). NOAA
regulations for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
define 'Coral reefs' to include "the hard bottoms,
deep-water banks, patch reefs, and outer bank reefs." A
'coral area' is "marine habitat where coral growth abounds
including patch reefs, outer bank reefs, deepwater banks,
and hardbottoms" (8). These legal descriptions will do
little to clarify the scientific debate, but for natural
resource trustees seeking to recover damages, a general
definition may be more useful than a specific one.
A Thumnail Reference List

1. Kleypas et al. 2001. The future of coral reefs in an age
of global change. Int. J. Earth Sci. 90: 426-437.

2. Ref 1 above; Riegl & Piller. 1999. Coral frameworks
revisited- reefs and coral carpets in the Red Sea. Coral
Reefs 18: 241-253.

3. Hubbard 1997. Reefs as dynamic systems In: Life & Death
in Coral Reefs, Chapman & Hall Pub.,
pp. 43-67. Schumacher & Zibrowius 1985. What is hermatypic?
A redefinition of ecological groups in corals and other
organisms. Coral Reefs 4: 1-9

4. Riegl & Pillar as above; Geister 1983. Holocene West
Indian coral reefs: geomorphology, ecology and facies.
Facies 9: 173-284

5. Weber 1973. Reef corals and coral reefs in the vicinity
of Port Moresby, south coast of Papua, New Guinea. Pac. Sci.
27: 377-390; Burns 1985. Hard coral distribution and cold
water disturbances in south Florida: variation with depth
and location. Coral Reefs 4: 117-124.

6. Schumacher 1997. Soft corals as reef builders. 8th Intl.
Coral Reef Symp. Panama 1: 499-502. Lewis 1989. The ecology
of Millepora. Coral Reefs 8: 99-107. Zann & Bolton 1985. The
distribution, abundance & ecology of the blue coral
Heliopora coerulea (Pallas) in the Pacific. Coral Reefs 4:
125-134. Posey et al., 1984. A brief description of a
subtidal sabellariid (Polychaeta) reef on the southern
Oregon coast. Pac. Sci. 38: 28-33; Gore et al.,
1978. Community composition [of] subtropical sabellariid
worm reefs... Bull. Mar. Sci. 28: 221-248. Cuffey 1977.
Bryozoan contributions to reefs and bioherms through
geologic time. In: Reefs and Related Carbonates-Ecology &
Sedimentology. AAPG Studies in Geology 4, pp. 181-194.
Lang et al., 1975. Sclerosponges: Primary framework
constructors on the Jamaican deep fore-reef. J. Mar. Res.
33: 223-231. Ginsburg & Schroeder 1973. Growth and
submarine fossilization of algal cup reefs, Bermuda.
Sedimentology 20: 575-614; Safriel 1974. Vermetid gastropods
& intertidal reefs in Israel & Bermuda. Science 186: 1113-

7. 16 United States Code 6401, section 6409; for purposes of
the statute 'corals' include all species of the anthozoan
orders Antipatharia (black corals), Scleractinia (stony
corals), Gorgonacea (horny corals), Stolonifera (organpipe
corals and others), Alcyanacea (soft corals), and
Coenothecalia (blue coral), as well as all species of the
order Hydrocorallina (fire corals and hydrocorals) of the
class Hydrozoa.

8. 15 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 922.162.
Statute citations courtesy of NOAA Office of General Counsel
for Ocean Services

Walter M. Goldberg
Professor of Biological Sciences
Department of Biological Sciences
Florida International University
Miami, FL 33199
e-mail goldberg at

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