Get to know the Salish Sea

  • By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
  • Friday, November 13, 2009 12:01am
  • Local News

Skagit Bay, Port Susan, Possession Sound, Tulalip Bay, Port Gardner, Puget Sound.

The names of the inland waters along the coastline of Snohomish County won’t change, but now they’re part of the Salish Sea.

And the people who care may never have to listen again to the bogus term “North Puget Sound.”

The state Board on Geographic Names recently agreed to use Salish Sea as the regional name for the complex 5,500-square-mile body of water that includes the Georgia Strait, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and everything else in between.

The state’s designation of Salish Sea as the name of those collective and connected inland waters was approved Thursday by the federal Board on Geographic Names. The British Columbia Geographical Names Office has signed off on the name and the Geographical Names Board of Canada has approved a resolution to adopt the name, contingent on U.S. approval.

Much like the Great Lakes, where Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario are the names on maps, Salish Sea won’t replace the names of the straits, bays, ports, sounds and inlets that make up the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia.

However, cartographers now must add the name Salish Sea to maps and atlases.

The term already is used by many naturalists and scientists to describe the unified ecosystem and habitats of the inland waters.

But is “sea” the correct term for all the water from Olympia north to Campbell River on Vancouver Island and west from Whidbey Island to Neah Bay?

“There are no strict guidelines. A sea is smaller than an ocean, but bigger than a harbor,” said Bert Webber, retired marine biology professor at Huxley College of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University. The term fits fine, he said, because it’s a large body of salt water partly enclosed by land and protected from the open ocean.

And what of the use of the name “Salish”?

Webber, 68, first proposed using the name Salish Sea in the late 1980s because he needed a way to describe the far-reaching estuarial ecosystem he studied. Naming it the Salish Sea seemed appropriate because the indigenous people in the same region are connected by various Coast Salish languages.

“The Salish people were here first,” Webber said. “It’s not a perfect fit — the Makah Tribe at Neah Bay are not Salish people — but it fits pretty well.”

Marlin Fryberg Jr., the Tulalip Tribes board secretary, likes the name, which speaks to the people who have lived here for thousands of years, he said.

History should be reflected in geographical names, Fryberg said, and designating the multiple bodies of water in the region as the Salish Sea has been an important effort joined by tribal leaders.

“The Tulalip Tribes are privileged to be part of such a passionate group of people and excited to be involved with this monumental change,” Fryberg said.

Since the beginning, people who lived along the Salish Sea have harvested the marine resources offered by the inland waters. Now there are nearly 8 million people living on or near the shores of the inland sea. All the accompanying activity has taken a toll, Webber said.

“There’s no question that it’s a functioning ecosystem, different from the ocean waters off the coast of Vancouver Island and Washington state,” Webber said. “The naming of the Salish Sea should encourage people to take care of the region’s ecosystem. The border with Canada doesn’t separate the life in the waters.”

The state Board of Geographical Names in 1990 turned down Webber’s request for the naming of the Salish Sea. Then, board members said there wasn’t a need and no historical evidence that anyone had ever grouped the waters together. No matter that the federal Geodetic Survey in the 1950s referred to the inland waters as the Western Sea, Webber said.

For the next 20 years the use of the term Salish Sea grew, and Webber decided to propose the name to the state once again.

Salish Sea is a name used by business owners, artists, tribes, educators, natural resource managers, whale watchers and bloggers, Webber said. It finally gained the wider acceptance the state board said was needed in order to adopt the name.

A few protested, said Caleb Maki, secretary to the state Board on Geographic Names.

Some suggested that the name of Puget Sound might be replaced if Salish Sea was added, Maki said. Others thought using Salish was simply an effort to be “politically correct” or that the lack of a name for the huge body of water thus far confirms that no name is needed now.

“We could hem and haw, but the name is in common local usage,” Maki said. “This has been a cooperative effort with British Columbia, and nobody foresees the new name cluttering up the maps.”

Salish Sea was favored by Island, Skagit and Kitsap county historical societies, the state historical society, many cities in lower B.C., Island and San Juan county commissioners, professors from Western Washington University and The Evergreen State College and tribes from the Suquamish Tribe on the Kitsap Peninsula north to the Naut’sa mawt Tribal Council of Nanaimo, B.C.

People in north Snohomish, Skagit, Island, San Juan, Jefferson and Whatcom counties were especially supportive of the name adoption, Maki said. The term “North Puget Sound” is not accepted, and people want a way to refer to and group together the waters off their cities and towns, he said. All the current geographic names remain, especially Puget Sound, which refers to the water south of Mukilteo, Maki said.

Jim Dunlap, president of Dunlap Towing, runs tugboats out of Everett and throughout the region. The La Conner-based company often names its boats after tribes in the region. However, whether Dunlap Towing tugboat captains will now refer to the inland waters as the Salish Sea remains doubtful.

“We tend to be much more specific about the bodies of water,” Dunlap said. “But we have no problem with others calling it Salish Sea.”

Longtime Everett commercial fisherman Jim Leese Sr. says he can see the logic of the new collective name.

“If you need to call it one name, Salish Sea probably will be fine,” Leese, 83, said. “It just might be hard for some of us older fishermen to get used to.”

Casey Stevens, planner for the Stillaguamish Tribe based in Arlington, said many tribes on both sides of the border spoke in favor of the name.

“The name makes good sense,” Stevens said. “It’s been a laudable effort.”

Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby, also a member of the Coast Salish Gathering group, said the name means a lot to American Indians and Canada’s First Nations people in the region.

“For the Coast Salish people, the simple alliance of governing bodies agreeing to see the relationship of the waters as one provides us hope that we can work together toward a healthy ecosystem for generations to come,” Cladoosby said.

Fryberg of Tulalip agreed.

“The Salish Sea has provided travel ways for our ancestors and people for decades. It is part of our past, present and future,” Fryberg said. “The Salish Sea will continue to be used and cared for by Coast Salish people.”

Salish Sea glossary

There are an ocean of terms, with meanings that sometimes twist like seaweed, to describe the various bodies of waters that make up what’s now called the Salish Sea. Here are some definitions to help you navigate the differences, but to get your bearings, remember that sometimes an inlet is a channel is a strait.

Bay: Skagit Bay, for example, is a part of a sea that cuts into the shoreline. It’s a wide inlet, but smaller than a gulf.

Canal: Hood Canal is not a canal but rather a fjord or a narrow inlet. British explorer Capt. George Vancouver probably first called it Hood’s Channel.

Channel: A body of water joining two larger bodies of water or the deeper part of a harbor.

Harbor: A protected inlet or branch of the sea where ships can anchor, especially one with port facilities.

Inlet: Admiralty Inlet, for example, is a narrow strip of water between islands, also a passage or channel.

Pass: Deception Pass, for example, is a narrow passage.

Passage: Saratoga Passage, for example, is a channel between Skagit Bay and Possession Sound.

Port: Port Susan or Port Gardner are bays or harbors.

Sea: A large body of saltwater partly (or wholly) enclosed by land.

Sound: Possession Sound or Puget Sound, for example, are long inlets or arms of the sea. A sound also can link two large bodies of water, a wide channel or a strait.

Strait: Such as Rosario Strait or Strait of Juan de Fuca, a strait is a narrow waterway connecting two large bodies of water.

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