In the first installment of our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty sits along the shore of Bellingham Bay. He speaks with retired biology professor Bert Webber who coined the Salish Sea name and led a 20-year effort to get it officially adopted.
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Liam Moriarty: Tell me about how the Salish Sea got its name.
Bert Webber: Well, I think back as far as I can, when I was a kid, I used to go to White Rock and spend the summers with my grandmother, and I remember sitting on the beach – still a memory I have – looking out at Orcas Island and wondering where I was and what I was looking at. But I didn’t really start thinking seriously about the Salish Sea, I think until the early 1970s when I was teaching at Huxley College in Bellingham.
That was just before the oil from the North Slope was being brought into the inland waters to go to the refineries at Cherry Point and down in Puget Sound. There were meetings about the concerns that there might be. I remember one meeting in Mt. Vernon, the bureaucrats from Olympia were talking to the audience about “Northern Puget Sound.”
At one point, this grizzly old tugboat captain got up and said, ‘I’ve been running tugs here for over 20 years and I’ve never heard of Northern Puget Sound. What are you talking about?’
That sensitized me to the importance of names; that the name should have some clear meaning, and that for our bodies of water here, we are not very clear about the meanings of the names that we use.
Liam: Well, the geography doesn’t help any. You’ve got a couple of straits, you’ve got a fjord, you’ve got kind of an indefinite area in the middle where it’s kind of hard to tell what’s fish and fowl. So it’s not like it’s a singular geographical entity that you can point to and say ‘yep, that’s the – whatever it is.’
Bert: That’s true but what you also have, and I think which is of paramount importance, is this line that goes down the middle of it; the 49th parallel and then the zig zag out to the coast that designates Canada and the United States.
You don’t think about unity when you have something like that dividing this body of water. But in the late 1970s, NOAA, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, started to gather information about what the potential of an oil spill might be.
They brought together a bunch of different people from various disciplines to look at how this ecosystem was structured. I was part of that program. It became clear in talking with the researchers, that we were dealing with a system that had much larger boundaries and included the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound.
Liam: You mean an ecological system?
Bert: An ecological system; right. An ecosystem. So it became clear in the late 70s and 80s that there was this ecosystem. Being a biologist, I thought well here is something that hasn’t been described. It needs a name. So that led to thinking of a name that would be appropriate for this body of water.
Liam: How did you come up with that?
Bert: I did know superficially that the inland waters were the home to the Salish people; that virtually all of the indigenous tribes around Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia have links to the inland Salish, and probably have a common origin. So I thought most of the indigenous people here are of a Salish background. So it seems like it would be appropriate to call this the Salish Sea.
Liam: I think there was something about that phrase that just connected. Because as you said, people had recognized before that there was a need for a unitary name. And the only ones that had come up with, were perhaps technically descriptive but were long and awkward, and they weren’t something you could put on a brochure. They weren’t something you could use in conversation. Something about the Salish Sea just grabbed ahold of people.
Bert: It seemed to fit, for sure. As far as I could tell, there was no single unifying name that the indigenous people used for what the Salish Sea ecosystem is. They had their own descriptive terms for smaller parts of it. So there wasn’t even an indigenous name that we could go back and try to apply to this area. It just simply had not been named.
In a way, too, the indigenous people didn’t need a name. The natural resource base that supported them was more localized, and they got along just fine without putting a name on this larger area.
But it’s clear that the seven million people or so that we have around the perimeter of the Salish Sea, have caused incredible insult to that ecosystem and in order to successfully restore and manage it, you need to know what it is you are dealing with. Focusing on this entity, the Salish Sea, gives us a sense of place that allows us to put these natural resource issues in better perspective. That would be the best thing that could happen.
Liam: Well, Bert; thanks for coming out and talking to us today.
Bert: My pleasure, Liam.