Burke: Cherishing the oceans within and Salish Sea outside

If you haven’t heard the name Salish Sea, here’s what it means and why it’s important.

By Tom Burke / Herald columnist

“Call me Ishmael,” opens Herman Melville’s tale of the sea, good-and-evil, and, oh yes, a big white whale named “Moby.”

Now those simple introductory words in “Moby-Dick” work pretty hard. First, they presuppose considerable Biblical understanding, mostly about the Old Testament; they segue into explaining how the sea serves as a restorative, abating some of life’s pain (and how Ishmael, “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … accounts it’s high time to get to sea”); and, of course, they tee up the 500-plus pages of Melville’s masterpiece.

But for my purposes, they serve to presage a couple of topics: namely “What’s in a name?” (What if Melville had begun the book with, say, “Call me Ralph?”) and an appeal for environmental awareness and action.

So let me ask, gentle reader, “What is the Salish Sea?”

Apparently, if you know the answer, researchers say you are in the top 5 percent of Washingtonians who recognize the “new” name for that big chunk of water running from south in Olympia, north to British Columbia, and west to the Pacific Ocean.

You see, what we once knew as “Puget Sound,” along with the geographically-distinct Straits of Juan de Fuca and Georgia, Desolation Sound, etc., has been collectively renamed the Salish Sea. And while that renaming might seem pretentious or a concession to politically correct liberalism, it is neither.

It is, because names matter, a very important change in the way we view and treat a critical component of our Pacific Northwest ecosystem.

You see, by defining the entire 300-mile-plus-long Salish Sea as a single entity, instead of its component parts, we communicate the inexorable connection between the salt water rushing in from the Pacific; the fresh water pouring down from Canada, the Olympics and Cascades; and the more than eight million people who live in the Salish’s watershed.

Now let’s get one thing straight: The Salish Sea ain’t very healthy. It’s not on life support, quite yet, but it is seriously declining in many measurable ways. You might say it’s not on end-of-life hospice, but it sure is in the Intensive Care Unit.

The Salish’s problems are simple to state (thanks go here to Katelyn Kinn, from Puget Soundkeeper, for helping me navigate through the next few paragraphs), but their science is complex:

• Declining marine life, with 23 new species added to “endangered” list, driven by deteriorating water quality and loss of habitat;

• Increasing ocean acidification, due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from burning of fossil fuels worldwide;

• Nitrogen and phosphorous over-enrichment from stormwater runoff, sewage treatment plants, and fertilizer;

• More lethal alga blooms fueled by warming waters;

• Ill-considered development putting large areas of the sea in danger; and

• A whole, whole lot of people, with a whole lot more to come, putting a whole lot more stress on the ecosystem.

And the solutions to the Salish’s problems are also simple to state but complex (and expensive) to implement: bring back the salmon, improve water quality, grow smarter, ameliorate shipping/boating traffic, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and stop global warming.

By considering the Salish Sea as a whole, as Bellingham marine biologist Bert Webber did in 1988 when he coined the name (referencing the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the Pacific Northwest, we can better understand how damage to one of its parts can affect the entire waterbody; like a bad heart valve can cause a stroke.

But paradoxically, “saving” the Salish Sea on the grand scale is accomplished by attacking its ills on the micro scale, that is, one problem at a time. It’s so easy to pollute and so much harder to clean up.

But as the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance advises:

• Get involved! Let government officials and regulators know how strongly you feel that we must Save the Salish Sea.

• Support accountability and compliance: Ensure officials enforce laws already on the books, despite industry lobbying for government to “go easy” on them.

• Do it yourself: Learn the ordinary things to do at home and work to lessen your impact on the environment. Eight million individual actions make a big difference.

Where to learn? Here:

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance: pugetsoundkeeper.org/;

University of Washigton Sea Grant: wsg.washington.edu/;

State Department of Ecology: ecology.wa.gov/Water-Shorelines

Melville waxes poetic about the great waters, “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

Today, it’s tough to find a whaler to ship out on; but you can find some of those “gently awful stirrings” with, say, a visit to a shore-side park such as Cama Beach, or watching the sun set at Mukilteo’s Lighthouse Park, or even a simple ferry ride over to Whidbey Island.

And as Ishmael says, “as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

Stay safe. Mask Up.

Tom Burke’s email address is t.burke.column@gmail.com.

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