What’s in a name? Actually, a lot when the name is ‘Salish Sea’

“Salish Sea.” You must admit the name has a certain ring to it. Maybe it’s time for naming authorities to give it an official stamp of approval.

Salish Sea watershed EPA graphic
Salish Sea watershed // EPA graphic

It’s never been officially recognized, but use of the name “Salish Sea” has been growing rapidly. For years, the term was especially popular with orca researchers and whale watchers in the San Juan Islands, where one soon realizes that there’s no way to find an ecological dividing line between the United States and Canada.

U.S. and Canadian scientists have been collaborating more and more on issues related to these inland waters common to Washington and British Columbia. In February, when more than 1,000 researchers gathered for the ninth “Puget Sound/Georgia Basin Ecosystem Conference” in Seattle, they had a theme in mind. They called it “The Future of the Salish Sea: A Call to Action.”

It seemed that nobody at the conference was confused about the meaning of “Salish Sea.” Simply put, it is the body of water stretching from South Puget Sound up to the northern end of Vancouver Island, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

A Google search for “Salish Sea,” will get you about 36,000 entries — all created since 1988, when marine biologist Bert Webber envisioned a single name to recognize the ecological connections of the inland waterway.

“I’m an estuarine ecologist by background,” the 67-year-old Bellingham resident told me. “The science dictates that there is an inland sea that had not really been described very well. The presence of the international border clouded our understanding of this ecosystem for a very long time.”

For years, scientists based in Seattle were wrapped up in studying Puget Sound, while those in Vancouver focused on the Georgia Strait. Nobody was talking about the connections between the two bodies of water, even though salmon and killer whales paid no attention to the border.

While writing a manuscript, Webber, who was born in Canada, came to realize that the entire area needed a name. Since native people of the region were known as Coast Salish, Webber thought the name “Salish Sea” would be appropriate.

In 1989, he petitioned the Washington State Board on Geographic Names to officially recognize “Salish Sea” as the cross-boundary waterway that included Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He was not proposing to change any existing names but simply to add a new name that incorporates the entire region.

At the time, few people making comments to the Board on Geographic Names seemed to understand his rationale for creating a new name. Those who did wanted to call the inland waters something else, such as “Sea of Juan de Fuca,” “Orca Sound” or “Gulf of San Juan.”

The Board on Geographic Names tabled the proposal, and the name did not come up again until this year, when Webber decided that it was time to take another stab at official recognition.

During the intervening years, without promotion, the name “Salish Sea” has caught on to a greater and greater degree.

In 1992, for example, author Steve Yates used the name elegantly while describing the inland waterway in his book “Orcas, Eagles and Kings.” Here’s part of that description:

Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca have three separate names and straddle the boarder of two countries. But in nature they comprise a single sea — a long brawny arm of the Pacific Ocean terminating in a handful of estuarine fingers gouged into the Puget/Fraser lowlands by sharp glacial fingers.

In 1994, Sophy Johnston was reading Yates’ book while she and Kathy Murphy pondered a plan to launch a nonprofit education program. Their idea was to use a sailboat to explore inland waters while teaching young people about the environment. They decided to dub their organization — now based on Bainbridge Island — Salish Sea Expeditions.

Native people of the region had names for places but not for the entire waterway, according to Webber. But, like many others today, Native Americans and First Nations people on both sides of the border see the need to work together to preserve their homelands.

At “Coast Salish Gatherings” in 2005, 2007 and 2008, about 40 Western Washington tribes and British Columbia First Nations have spelled out their common goals, including this statement:

“We come together to share, develop and recommend policies and actions to ensure the protection of our shared environment and natural resources in our homeland, the Salish Sea.”

As Webber anticipated 20 years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada have increased their collaborations on cross-boundary environmental issues. The agencies officially call the area Puget Sound/Georgia Strait, but a joint action plan (PDF 176 kb) released in November adopts the name “Salish Sea.”

The concept of the Salish Sea has penetrated into music as well, thanks to Canadian “environmental artist” Holly Arntzen. Click here to listen to a sampling of songs from her album “Salish Sea.”

Webber is rightly proud to have coined a name that is so widely accepted by people who need a name that covers this wide region. It remains unclear, however, whether the average person in Washington or British Columbia recognizes what is meant by Salish Sea.

On May 15, the Washington Board of Geographic Names will decide whether to formally consider Webber’s proposal. Assuming the board sees merit, the public will be able to send in comments and testify at a public hearing to be scheduled later. Stay tuned.

Be sure to offer your opinion in the poll down the right column.

Other discussions about officially naming the Salish Sea

Warren Cornwall, Seattle Times
Knute Berger, Crosscut: Jan. 23,2009, March 27, 2009
Steffan Freelan, GIS specialist, Huxley College of Environmental studies

7 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Actually, a lot when the name is ‘Salish Sea’

  1. If we change the name, do we disband the Puget Sound Partnership? I understand that agency tried to have the taxpayers foot the bill for thousand of dollars of alcohol served at their February gala at the Convention Center. It was rejected by the OFM.

  2. I wasn’t able to cast my “NO” vote for a change of name. So I am doing it here.

    “Salish Sea” sounds the same as ‘salacious’ to me – unpleasant.

    I like the present names, Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Each tells us exactly which area we mean.

    Do we have such an access of taxpayer dollars that we can arbitrarily change names on the whim of a few folks?

    The cost of changing or adding another name isn’t worth it…in my opinion.

    My vote is no.
    Sharon O’Hara

  3. Is anyone else having trouble clicking on one of the choices in the poll? This is the first poll I’ve run on this blog, so I’d like to know if there are problems.

    I believe you may vote only once from any computer.

    If you are unable to vote on this poll, please let me know what situation you are encountering. You may comment, as Sharon O’Hara did, or send me an e-mail offline at cdunagan@kitsapsun.com.

    I hope to run more polls in the future. If you have suggestions, drop me a note. Thanks. chris.

  4. They agree, Salish Sea it has to be.

    What about the notion of Motion Ocean?

    That does’t hide the great tide.

    But, for the inviros and the MaKah

    I’ll go with the Bay of Kumbayah.

  5. All the current place names will still be used just as they are now as Salish Sea gains currency as the term to describe the overall inland sea extending from Johnstone Strait BC to southern Puget Sound. Otherwise we need a half dozen names to cover one large, international marine ecosystem.
    In 1995 I took it a step further to describe the entire watershed what washes into the Salish Sea. In Volume I of Orcas In Our Midst I looked for a way to name and describe the essential habitat needed by Southern Resident orcas. Since these orcas are finicky eaters and specialize on salmon (now we know their diet is about 80% Chinook salmon) I needed to include the river systems needed by the salmon if the orcas downstream were to have food, which is important for survival. So the logical answer was to say the Salish Sea rests in the cradle of the Salish Watershed.

  6. Blue Light, your comment about the state paying for thousands of dollars in alcohol raised my curiosity, so I looked into it.

    Contrary to assumptions, the state did not directly pay for any of the Puget Sound/Georgia Strait conference, according to Paul Bergman, spokesman for the Puget Sound Partnership.

    The Partnership played banker for the event, the cost of which was covered by registrations and sponsorships. Partnership staff collected the money and paid the bills.

    There was a poster reception that offered free drinks to participants. The alcohol bill should have been paid directly by a sponsor of that reception, but the invoice was improperly submitted with the bill for food.

    Paying for liquor in any shape or form is not allowed by state law and was rejected by state auditors. The important thing to me, unless someone has other information, was that the state was not picking up the tab for the booze, the food or anything else.

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