The Salish Sea

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It's time for a geography quiz. Quick, find the Salish Sea on a handy map or chart.

Not there? It was not a fair question. That name does not appear on any official chart or map now, but it will eventually. You'll find it on the left-hand coast, covering inland waters of northwest Washington and southern British Columbia.

British and Spanish explorers who sailed into the area in the 17th and 18th centuries named every cove, bay, strait, and sound to honor friends and peers, royalty and other important people back home, fellow sailors and financial backers. It was a large inland sea, but none thought to offer a single name covering it all.

Proponents have argued for two decades to call those strung-out but connected inland waters the Salish Sea, believing it would recognize the heritage of Salish people who once lived there (and who still do today) but that it also would reflect the common environmental problems of both the United States and Canada (water pollution and protecting endangered species among them) and emphasize the need for cooperative efforts by two friendly nations to solve them.

The Washington (state) Board of Geographic Names recently voted to apply the Salish Sea name to the three major connected bodies of water in the region - Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Georgia Strait. The British Columbia Geographical Names Office has adopted the name and the Geographical Names Board of Canada also has approved its use, contingent upon approval by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. U.S. approval is expected soon.

No existing name will be changed or deleted. Once all geographical-naming agencies have agreed, U.S. and Canadian chart makers will be required to overlay the Salish Sea name on navigation charts and topographical maps. The designation stretches roughly 150 straight-line miles from Shelton, Washington, at the southern-most shore of Puget Sound north to the southern tip of Quadra Island, which is roughly opposite Campbell River, B.C.

The Salish Sea has 4,640 miles of coast line, it includes 419 islands, and the sea surface area covers more than 6,500 square miles. In some places the water is 900 feet deep and the sea and its surroundings are home to 20 species of mammals, 128 types of birds, 219 species of fish (including five varieties of the all-important salmon family), and more than 3,000 invertebrates.

This is a much-loved cruising area for thousands of U.S. and Canadian boaters, including this writer. It is a special place.

The Salish name now is informally used by scientists and government people and Native Americans in the U.S. and First Nations people in Canada. The domain,, is taken. Coming soon, probably, will be labeled T-shirts and caps and signs on the side of delivery trucks. I haven't seen a boat named Salish Explorer, but that sounds like a good name and I count on seeing it eventually.

One other benefit: People in the region will always be right in saying they live on the Salish Sea. Right now, there is some confusion over names that rankles mildly those of us who read navigation charts.

Many non-boaters in the region will tell you all those harbors, coves, channels, and straits are part of Puget Sound. They can be in Anacortes, overlooking Guemes Channel, and they'll say, "Oh, Puget Sound." Or they'll utter the same words while standing on the shore on Vancouver Island. Wrong, and wrong again.

Puget Sound (named for Peter Puget, a junior officer aboard Capt. George Vancouver's Discovery in 1792 who explored the sound in small boats) runs from Shelton to approximately Double Bluff near the south end of Whidbey Island. North of that, Admiralty Inlet (an appropriate name from a British explorer) stretches northward about 10 miles to a junction with the Strait of Juan de Fuca (reflecting the Spanish exploration of the Northwest coast). Rosario Strait, Haro Strait, and other named waters lie even farther north. None of it is in Puget Sound.

Ranting complete.

The name Salish comes from the Salishan Indians who lived in Montana and first were "discovered" by Lewis and Clark in their journey of exploration in 1804/1806. But it also was applied to Indians living in Idaho, northern Washington, and coastal British Columbia who spoke a similar language. More than 50 separate tribes and bands were spread across 600 million acres of the Coast Salish Nation, according to a U.S. government estimate.

The Coast Salish built communal homes of cedar planks and beams and harvested salmon and shellfish. The goal of Native American and First Nations people, who continue to harvest the sea, is to restore, preserve, and protect the shared environment and natural resources.

Reflecting that goal, Coast Salish from Washington and British Columbia recently worked with the U.S. Geological Survey in a major water quality survey. Using canoes, they towed water-quality sampling probes and linked GPS units. They mapped more than 600 miles of the Salish Sea and checked thousands of data points for water temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen-all critical to healthy waters and the survival of marine life.

Bert Webber, now a retired professor of marine biology from Western Washington College in Bellingham, first proposed the Salish Sea designation in 1988. There was so little interest then that he withdrew his suggestion, but the idea didn't die.

He renewed his proposal to the state board a year and a half ago, after the region's population had surged and Chinook salmon and killer whales were threatened with extinction.

After the state's approval, Webber told The Seattle Times: "There are some 7 million people spread around the Salish Sea and we all have to work to protect it."

Speaking for tribes on both sides of the border, Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, said: "We are the shoreline and salmon people, many of our songs, traditions, and ancient names and ceremonies are tied to the waters of the Salish Sea," the Times reported.

"For us the simple alliance of the governing bodies agreeing to see the relationship of the waters... provides hope that we can work together toward a healthy ecosystem for seven generations into the future," Cladoosby said.

Overlaying Washington and Canadian waters with the Salish Sea name is appropriate, although those of us who cruise its waters will continue to use individual place names that have been on charts for more than 200 years. If the coming together of governments, Indian tribes, and others under that name is good for whales, salmon, and birds it also will be good for you and me.

A bonus: it's easy to spell and pronounce. It's Salish with a long A.