What's a reef??

Mike Risk riskmj at mcmail.cis.mcmaster.ca
Wed Jan 16 20:37:07 EST 2002

I was only prompted to respond in the first place because (as I told a
senior colleague who responded to me privately) I grow frustrated by those
who would re-invent the wheels on the handbasket in which reefs are so
quickly going to hell. My submission was somewhat tongue-in-cheek: I knew
perfectly well that there was no chance of that definition, or any other,
being widely accepted. All such proposals will be talked to death.

The fractious and divisive nature of the coral reef biological community is
by now the stuff of legends. Just one example, of many: equally as important
(more so) as the definition is the ability to describe what we see. I advise
the governments of several nations (including the USA) on coral reef
monitoring programs. I can guarantee you that, 30 years after the basic
technique was described, there is still no general agreement on survey
methods. This is clearly absurd. As all survey methods, properly applied,
give the same answer, it would not be a problem if the various groups met
regularly to compare notes-but even that doesn't happen.

So I knew that adoption of the Wells 1957 definition (which was a consensus
of opinions at the time) was impossible, because:
    1. there are those out there who would not agree to ANY definition that
they had not made up themselves;
    2. those hearing it for the first time would have to admit they were
unfamiliar with the classic reef literature, and
    3. it was proposed by (shudder!) geologists. (Do I need to point out
here the host of illustrious ecologists with geology degrees-starting with
Darwin-without whom our knowldege of reefs would be woeful indeed?)

There is nothing wrong with that definition-only the fact that it will never
be adopted.

John Ware's posting splits more hairs than it ties together. There is
nothing wrong with "wave-resistant" as an essential descriptor. Talking
about wave heights, wave strength (Reynold's Numbers??) etc. is just plain
silly. Every structure we would accept as a reef is wave-resistant. Do they
resist all waves? Of course not. (I resist temptation, but on rare occasions
have been known to...that's for a later discussion). Will there be a
spectrum of resistances? Of course. Is this a problem? Not to a group that
can deal with the CCA "boilers" as well as the branched, fragile patches.
This is an essential part of the definition, as it separates "reefs" from,
say, piles of oyster shells. It is worth noting that the original word
"reif" was High German/Old Norse, and meant a boat-holer.

Equally, there is nothing wrong with "framework." The building analogy
actually proves the point, instead of being fatal, as John would have it.
The building falls down without the framework, ergo the structure needs it.
It is silly to claim that massive structures, underlain by frameworks, do
not qualify.

When we look at reefs in the record, it is often hard to accept the
existence of frameworks-most of them are jumbled piles of rubble. Again I
don't think those observations are fatal-instead, they document the
catastrophic force of rare storms. Wave-resistance is one thing, but against
a hurricane, well, "resistance is futile", and the framework is destroyed.

The definition I quoted is from a GSA Volume titled "Ecology"-I recommend
it, even though it was published prior to 1995. (I think it's Memoir #54.)
In that same volume is a paper by Teichert, describing the cold and
deep-water coral banks off Europe, and pointing out that these should not be
called "reefs". See above. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out
that an uncemented pile of corals is no more wave-resistant than a pile of
oyster shells. So this wheel was invented a long time ago.

If we are looking for a legal/policy-oriented reef definition, here is what
does NOT go in:

1. there should be no mention of corals. All sorts of critters make reefs,
even now. It is not even proper to say that corals dominate modern reefs-in
terms of carbonate budgets, algae and bioeroders are more important by far
than corals. (I can just hear the screams if I proposed that reefs were
"algal-cemented frameworks supporting large numbers of bioeroders.")

2. there should be no mention of zooxanthellae/algal symbiosis. That is a
factor that almost always accompanies reef formation (and has in the past)
but any legal challenge would, for example, quickly expose our degree of
ignorance of terrestrial OM sources in the diets of corals. This could lead
to a lack of legal protection for parts of inshore reefs.

3. there should be no time implications. Tom's 6-year-old reef is as worthy
of protection as are those 3,000-year-old reef fronts on the GBR.

In short: the only change I can see making to the original definition would
be to exclude humans! So, "Biologically-constructed (not by us!)
wave-resistant frameworks."

I now leave this debate, in the sure and certain knowldege that, should I
come back in 5 years, no progress will have been made.

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