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Salish Sea moniker an idea that finally holds water

Mon., Nov. 2, 2009

The Pacific Northwest has its own sea, and soon maps made in the United States and Canada will carry the name of the newest maritime unit: the Salish Sea.

The naming of the inland sea, which covers the Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Georgia Strait, was approved last week by the Washington Board of Geographic Names, and three months ago by a similar board in Canada. That’s expected to be enough for the U.S. board to give an OK to an idea first floated some 20 years ago.

As seas go, it may be one of the world’s smallest, although no one really keeps track of those kinds of statistics, said retired marine biologist Bert Webber, who first proposed the name in 1989. But giving a unifying name to those three bodies of water – all three keep their own names, too – helps emphasize that they’re really one ecosystem, he said.

Webber, a Canadian native and naturalized American citizen, taught marine biology at Western Washington University for 30 years. It was his study of the sound and the two straits that convinced him that while each has its own characteristics, they are connected by merging circulation patterns and shared animals and plants.

He thought that should be recognized and proposed naming the new sea for the Salish people, the family of Native American tribes that settled the coastal and inland regions of the Northwest.

At the time, some people objected because they thought it would replace the existing names. The state names board tabled the idea, and Webber didn’t object. It seemed dead, but then a funny thing happened. Scientists and resource managers started using it to describe the entire inland waterway, and some tourism businesses began using it to describe things like whale-watching tours that cruise from Vancouver Island to the San Juans. It turned up in songs and books.

At one point, British Columbia suggested renaming the Georgia Strait the Salish Sea, Webber said. He resurrected the idea for the entire waterway, and the Canadian board agreed. On Friday, the Washington state board, which was allowed to revisit the issue because it had never been rejected, said yes, too, and sent the name to the U.S. board, which is expected to approve it for use on all maps and atlases published in the United States.

Just what constitutes a sea is a bit vague, Webber said. Some, like the Mediterranean, are so big they contain their own smaller seas, like the Aegean and the Adriatic. Others, like the Salish, are part of an ocean.

“It’s a body of marine water, usually close to land, that’s smaller than an ocean,” he said. An ocean, he added, is a body of marine water that’s larger than a sea.

The name will probably be used in many different ways, but he’s not sure how long it will take for it to catch and become common usage. “I just hope that having a name that people can relate to leads to a greater shared identity.”

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