Coral reefs are of great socio-economic and cultural importance for many coastal communities across the tropics, yet little is known about people’s local classification and their social and ecological relationship with these habitats. In the case of island peoples, coral reefs are more than just resource exploitation areas, but are also geomorphologic features that allow or bar people from navigating, markers that define property rights of the seascape in relation to other coastal and terrestrial habitats, and cultural and historical features that embody tribal identity and ideology. Building upon over two decades of research, this paper uses published and unpublished data to describe people’s ecological and socio-economic relationships with coral reefs in two extensive lagoon ecosystems in the Western Solomon Islands. It combines ecological, geospatial, and ethnographic data to analyse the dominant characteristics of coral reef habitats in the region, the prevalent environmental phenomena associated with reefs and their transformation, the productive practices exerted in these habitats by the local inhabitants, and the socio-cultural meaning of coral reefs for lagoon peoples from the standpoint of local ecological knowledge. Understanding people’s classification and socio-economic and cultural use of coral reefs is not just a descriptive effort. Rather, it is an essential step toward understanding human–environmental relationships theoretically and creating comprehensive base resource maps for planning marine and terrestrial conservation including marine protected areas (MPAs) and ecosystems-based management (EBM) plans that potentially can enhance people’s livelihood resilience.