SEATTLE – It’s celebrated in song, dissected in scientific journals and detailed on government Web sites. It’s the subject of international conferences, amateur theater performances, and gatherings of Northwest tribal leaders.
Ask Bert Webber, and he’ll say we dip our toes in it, admire it and sail across it every day.
But how many people know where the Salish Sea is?
“Likely as not, nobody knows what you’re talking about,” said Webber, a retired Western Washington University marine biologist.
Now he’s trying to change that, with a campaign to have Washington and British Columbia officially adopt the name Salish Sea for the vast, fertile and imperiled expanse of saltwater we share.
Pieces of it already have well-worn names: Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. Webber stresses that he’s not trying to replace those names. Instead, he wants to create another name unifying the places, and acknowledging many of the native tribes here, collectively known as the Coast Salish because of shared Salishan languages.
While some might shrug at a new name, the proposal has already attracted advocates and critics.
“I just love that stuff. Because we take it for granted it’s just the way it is. But when you peel back the layers, there’s so much lurking underneath,” said University of Washington history professor John Findlay.
Webber hopes a common name will help energize efforts to restore the damaged waters, by raising awareness that this is one shared ecosystem spanning the border between Canada and the United States.
Webber initially proposed the idea in the 1980s, and first asked Washington state officials to formally adopt Salish Sea in 1990. But the state’s Board on Geographic Names rejected it, saying there was little evidence people used the name.
Since then, however, the name has been taken up by scientists, artists, writers, government agencies and activists.
Not everyone is a fan, however.
Marie Vautier, a University of Victoria professor, said the Salish Sea proposal is another example of U.S. cultural imperialism. She pointed to previous efforts to ignore the international border in favor of referring to the region as Cascadia. Such moves threaten to erode distinctly Canadian culture beneath the wave of U.S. culture, she said.
The Geographic Names board hasn’t received much comment on the idea.