legal definition of a reef

Karl Fellenius karlf at
Fri Jan 11 19:56:59 EST 2002

Last year there was some discussion on CORAL on legal definitions of coral
reefs (January) and deepwater corals (May) that might be of use for the
current thread. I've copied a couple of the posts below that I kept, but the
rest should be available through the archives.

Karl Fellenius
School of Resource & Environmental Management
8888 University Drive, Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6,

Bob Buddemeier wrote:

> There are many definitions of  'reef' in all of the categories mentioned.
> A
> few are 'clear,' whether or not any are 'proper' depends on the user and
> intended usage, and 'legal' is strictly a matter of the political
> jurisdiction
> concerned -- some may have legal definitions of reefs, most probably
> don't.
> For a recent summary review of reef definitions and their characteristics
> (with
> references), see: Kleypas, J.A., Buddemeier, R.W. and Gattuso, J.-P.,
> 2001.
> Defining 'coral reef' for the age of global change. International Journal
> of
> Earth Sciences, 90: 426-437.
> The most important recommendation to all serious (scientific, managerial
> or
> regulatory) users of the term is to NOT assume that you understand what
> somebody else means by the term, or that they will understand you, but to
> provide and ask for explicit definitions.
> Bob Buddemeier
> Sabine Goetz wrote:
> > >Dear coral-listers,
> > >we are a group of biologists in Tobago, doing some research on
> artificial
> > >reefs.Because we are not sure if its legal to use the term "reef" for
> our
> > >project, it would be very interesting to know, if there exists a legal
> and
> > >
> > >clear (biological,nautical or geological) definition. Maybe somebody
> knows
> > >a proper definition of this term.It would be very
> > >nice if you answered us per e-mail.
> > >Thanks in advance
> > >   Sabine Goetz
> > >


> >Subject:
>        RE: "Legal" definition of a coral reef?
>    Date:
>        Sat, 13 Jan 2001 22:25:05 -0500
>    From:
>        "John McManus" <jmcmanus at>
>     To:
>        "Nani Kai" <nanikai at>, <coral-list at>
> Here is my draft definition for an article in an encyclopedia that will
> come
> out next year.
> 'The term "coral reef" commonly refers to a marine ecosystem in which a
> prominent ecological functional role is played by scleractinian corals. A
> "structural coral reef" differs from a "non-structural coral community" in
> being associated with a geomorphologically significant calcium carbonate
> (limestone) structure of meters to hundreds of meters height above
> surrounding substrate, deposited by components of a coral reef ecosystem.
> The term "coral reef" is often applied to both types of ecosystem or their
> fossil remains, although many scientists, especially geomorphologists,
> reserve the term for structural coral reefs and their underlying
> limestone.'
> The limits on what is and is not a part of a given coral community can be
> more difficult to define than most people realize. In the worst case, one
> has scattered clumps of coral that gradually become increasingly dense
> toward a central area. Some worn footpaths through grass have the same
> character. Defining the width of the path can be challenging. The
> situation
> is similar to that of defining the length of a coastline. In a general
> sense, there is no right answer. One can only define the length of the
> coastline in terms of a particular choice of measuring stick.
> Alternatively,
> one can describe the coastline in terms of fractals, although this is
> useful
> only for certain purposes. Similarly, one could choose a density for
> delineating the coral patch, but one would have to couple it with a
> particular way (especially scale) of measuring the density (or set of
> scales
> or fractal index).
> Given the above definition, the depth would not matter. Some people like
> terms such as bioherm, but but most people would tend to think of a
> bioherm
> as a form of the popular concept of a coral reef. I don't mind the use of
> the term, as long as it is clearly defined when used. I think the
> 'wave-breaking" concept should be dropped entirely from coral reef
> definitions, and we should accept that the term "coral reef" should imply
> little or no relationship to the unqualified nautical term "reef". That
> gets
> us around having to define two nearly identical ecological -
> geomorphological constructions as different just because one has sunk a
> few
> meters lower than the other (e.g. the Palawan subsurface "barrier coral
> reef
> system", which looks much like the GBR but rarely comes to within 10 m of
> the surface).
> John
> _________________________________________________________
> John W. McManus, PhD
> Director, National Center for Caribbean Coral Reef Research (NCORE)
> Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS)
> University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway
> Miami, Florida 33149.
> jmcmanus at
> Tel. (305) 361-4609
> Fax (305) 361-4600
>  -----Original Message-----
> From:   owner-coral-list at
> [mailto:owner-coral-list at]  On Behalf Of Nani Kai
> Sent:   Monday, January 08, 2001 6:03 PM
> To:     coral-list at
> Subject:        "Legal" definition of a coral reef?
> A simple question;  What IS a coral reef?  Or perhaps more importantly,
> what is it Not?  (But first let me say that I did review the discussion on
> "what is a reef" in last May's coral-list.)
> With the great amount of attention that coral reefs have received in the
> past few years, regulators are (at last!) coming to the realization that
> our
> precious marine resources need protection.  My concern is that this
> pendulum
> of regulation may be swinging a bit too far to the left.  I think that
> everyone reading this list would agree that coral reefs represent a
> resource
> that merits our protection.  I don't think, however, that everyone would
> agree specifically about how to define the "coral reef" that we are trying
> to protect.
> A "reef" may be clearly defined in strictly nautical terms as it relates
> to ship traffic without any reference to corals or other living marine
> resources.  Similarly "coral" (or coral communities) may be appropriately
> defined in biological terms leaving little room for academic argument.
> It is only as the terms are combined that an increased level of meaning
> emerges in the definition to include an interwoven ecological matrix of
> habitat complexity, species diversity, and fragility.  But with the
> increasing presence of regulators and lawyers dealing with coral reef
> issues we are rapidly approaching a time where a working (read: legal)
> definition of a "coral reef" will be necessary.
> Please consider the following two situations.
> Given a flat basalt substrate in 10 meters (just below keel depth) of
> water,
> at what coral density does a 1 hectare area become a coral reef?  Does
> surface rugosity, species composition, or colony age play a role in this
> designation?
> Given a shoreline area, depth from 0 to 2 meters, within 50 feet of shore,
> do the same definitions apply?
> Please forward any answers or comments directly to the list.
> I'll do what I can to follow up with a summary to see if we can develop a
> consensus definition.


> Subject:
>           Re: deepwater coral "reefs"?
>      Date:
>           Thu, 01 Jun 2000 07:28:56 -0700
>      From:
>           pmuller at (pmuller at
>        To:
>           szmanta at
>        CC:
>           erichugo at, coral-list at
>  References:
>           1 , 2
> I concur wholeheartedly with Alina and would add a couple of small
> details.
> A coral is either zooxanthellate or azooxanthellate in most cases (one can
> find exceptions to any "rule").  However, a coral is not inherently
> "hermatypic" or "ahermatypic".  Rather, whether coral can accrete
> limestone faster than it is eroded away or buried by a variety of
> processes is a function of the environment, in addition to the organism's
> accretion potential.  For example, Montastrea spp. are hermatypic in the
> Caribbean, but not on the West Florida Shelf.  There are also many local
> environments in the Caribbean where Montastrea can live but not construct
> bioherms.
> This distinction is critical to conservation efforts, because a management
> decision to maintain environmental conditions that can support survival of
> Montastrea, for example, could be quite different than a management
> decision to maintain environmental conditions that can support reef
> (meaning "bioherm") development.
> Pamela Hallock Muller, Professor
> Department of Marine Science
> University of South Florida
> "Alina M. Szmant" wrote:
> >> Eric:
> >>
> >> The definition of a bioherm is a herm (mound) made by living organisms.
> >It can be located in shallow, deep, or intermediate depths. Again, a
> >"reef" is "a chain of rocks or ridge of sand at or near the surface of
> >water" or "a hazardous obstruction" (Webster's New Collegiate
> >Dictionary). Neither has anything to do with corals or zooxanthellae
> >specifically.
> >>
> >> Coral reefs are bioherms or reefs made by corals and associated
> >organisms. For the most part, hermatypic corals have zooxanthellae, but
> >many zooxanthellate corals either do not live on or form reefs, or live
> >on reefs but are not really a major contributor to reef formation (e.g.
> >Favia fragum...).
> >>
> >> The confusion in terminology is due (1) to the misconception that
> >hermatypic means zooxanthellae-containing, and (2) that everyplace there
> >is coral there is a coral reef. Corals can have high cover on a volcanic
> >substrate but that doesn't make it a coral reef in my opinion unless
> >there has been carbonate accretion over the volcanic substrate. Further,
> >in places like Florida, there is some coral cover over exposed
> >Pleistocene reef substrate, which locally are considered coral reefs (as
> >opposed to a coral community growing over a fossil reef). Everyone wants
> >to have a coral reef in their back yard and many systems that are not
> >true "coral reefs" are being called by that name.
> >>
> >> With regard to "deepwater" coral reefs, the only ones that would fit a
> >strict definition would be ones that were drowned (e.g. Conrad Neumann's
> >give-up reefs). Catch-up reefs would also fit since they are usually grow
> >into shallow water. As ships get bigger and have deeper hulls, I guess
> >the "dangerous obstruction" part of the reef definition would include
> >deeper water coral reefs that big ships could run into. If we include
> >submarines, then all depths are fair game....
> >>
> >> Anyway, that is how I analyze the terminology based on first principles
> >and dictionaries.
> >>
> >> Alina Szmant
> >>
> >> 53 AM 05/27/2000 -0400, EricHugo at wrote:
> >> >Hi Alina and coral-list:
> >> >
> >> >Is there a point when a correct usage of "bioherm" over "reef" for
> such
> >> >structures became semantically favored? I ask because I find the
> >following
> >> >perhaps relevant:
> >> >
> >> >Coates, Anthony G. and Jeremy B.C. Jackson. 1987. Clonal growth, algal
> >> >symbiosis, and reef formation by corals. Paleobiology 13(4) 363-378.
> >> >
> >> >(I will not quote directly to avoid copyright concerns, although I
> >also hope
> >> >that the authors will point out if my translation is incorrect or
> >improper,
> >> >although I maintain the textual use of the word "reef" and "bioherm"
> ).
> >> >
> >> >"Rugosan corals that formed reefs likely lacked zooxanthellae because
> >of
> >> >morphological evidence. Most zooxanthellate corals today and in the
> >fossil
> >> >record contribute to reef formation, but many others are ahermatypic.
> >Recent
> >> >reef formation has little to do with being zooxanthellate but depends
> >on
> >> >environmental factors. Using morphology to indicate the presence of
> >> >zooxanthellae, there exist recent deepwater analogues to the shallow
> >water
> >> >azooxanthellate Devonian Edgecliff Bioherm. "
> >> >
> >> >Here we have a concatination of terms, distribution, history, and
> >ecology
> >> >that makes this thread all the more intriguing.
> >> >
> >> >Thanks for the clarification
> >> >
> >> >Eric Borneman
> >> >
> >> >
> >> *******************************************************************
> >>
> >> Dr. Alina M. Szmant
> >> Coral Reef Research Group
> >> Professor of Biology
> >> Center for Marine Science
> >> University of North Carolina at Wilmington
> >> 1 Marvin K. Moss Lane
> >> Wilmington NC 28409
> >> tel: (910)962-2362 fax: (910)962-2410
> >> email: szmanta at
> >>
> >> ******************************************************************

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