By Simon Thomas
Six years ago, the U.S. and Canadian governments officially accepted the name Salish Sea as the title of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Strait of Georgia, and Puget Sound. The process had to go through the Washington State Board of Geographical Names and the Geographical Names Board of Canada.
To commemorate the anniversary, Western’s Wilson Library invited the person credited with naming the Salish Sea, Bert Webber, to do a presentation about the body of water. Webber worked as a professor at Western in the Huxley College of the Environment and was part of the original faculty of the department in 1970.
“I was here at the beginning,” Webber said.
According to Webber, the college “always had an emphasis on thinking outside of the box,” and his creation of the Salish Sea put further emphasis on their creativity and outreach to the community.
Webber said he wanted the 7 million people who live along the coast of the Salish Sea to recognize the body of water they live next to as a connected ecosystem.
“It acts together in a single system, and if you can’t name the system, you do not understand it,” Webber said.
Webber decided on the name Salish Sea because it paid respect to the first civilization here, the Salish Native American groups who originated from Montana.
After migrating further west, tribes formed homes along the coastline, but according to Webber, no group ever had a name for the entire body of water, even though their language recognizes different parts of the sea.Webber said that there were 60 sovereign nations with a right to a part of the Salish Sea, which is why the jurisdiction over the massive amount of space is “the paramount issue at the moment.”
Webber spoke with tribal leaders about the name and before the title was officially changed, it had the backing of the the local tribal leaders.
Webber believes the costal population of the Salish Sea needs to take more ownership for the health of the ecosystem.
While Victoria, B.C. has recently been in international news for their dumping of toxic chemicals into the Salish Sea, U.S. cities like Seattle also struggle to minimize their carbon footprint.
Seattle’s West Duwamish Greenbelt is a National Superfund Site, which means the Environmental Protection Agency considers it in the top hundred most polluted parts of the United States.
“The Puget Sound is much more at risk than Victoria,” he said.
British Columbia has begun funding the restoration of the environment their factories have damaged.
Meanwhile, the Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund Site has been recognized on the EPA’s National Priorities List since 2001. After 15 years, 90 percent of the contaminants in the waterway still need to be removed, according to the EPA’s Final Cleanup Plan.
Toxins have built up to unsafe levels in resident fish and shellfish and dangerous chemicals are being put into the surrounding water, Webber said Bellingham Bay has been cleaned up over the past decades and there has been promotion for a better understanding to take care of the area.
“The mouth of Whatcom Creek that is currently undergoing redevelopment now used to be a paper mill,” Webber said.
He told stories about how he would take his students to sights like Whatcom Creek and storm drains leading to the ocean in the 70s to give them a visual of how much raw sewage and other contaminate was pushed out into local waterways.
“All that stuff needed to be cleaned up, and it has been,” Webber said.
Webber said more work needs to be done by all parties, and that all the problems will not go away after just 20 years of progressive action.
Webber promotes the idea of “doing what we can to be responsible stewards.”
Webber was recently on the committee to create an interdisciplinary center geared toward the health of the Salish Sea on Western’s campus.
“Western has developed the Salish Sea Studies Institute. It is one-year-old now and is still a developing program,” Webber said.
It is the institute’s goal to promote a better understanding of the area’s problem-ridden ecosystem and to work with government agencies and community groups to further restore the area.