Over the past 200 years, humans have drastically altered the Salish Sea to a degree previously associated only with the geological creation of ecosystems. As a result, we have diminished the ecosystem’s ability to provide for us.
Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from the book “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest,” by Audrey DeLella Benedict and Joseph K. Gaydos, © 2015 by Cloud Ridge Publishing. All rights reserved.
(Sasquatch Books, $24.95)
WHAT’S IN a name?
About the authors
Audrey DeLella Benedict, a biologist and writer, is founder and director of Cloud Ridge Naturalists, a nonprofit natural history exploration and educational outreach organization. She is a member of the board of the SeaDoc Society. She splits her time between Colorado and her off-the-grid cottage in the San Juan Islands.
Joseph K. Gaydos is chief scientist for the SeaDoc Society, a marine science and conservation program focused on the Salish Sea. He is a veterinarian and has a Ph.D. in wildlife health. Gaydos has studied the fish and wildlife of the Salish Sea for more than a decade. He lives with his family on a small island in the Salish Sea.
Bert Webber, a retired professor of environmental and marine science at Western Washington University and the driving force behind the naming of the Salish Sea, is quick to tell you that not having a name can create problems. In the early 1970s, people in Washington state were worried about the effect of oil tankers from Alaska passing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to refinery facilities in the United States and Canada. The ensuing debate focused not only on the potential impact but also on what the region should be called. How does one address a possible problem when there isn’t a name for the area where it might occur?
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When a large-scale scientific study of the region showed the inland sea off the coast of Washington and British Columbia to be an integrated ecosystem that shares mixed saltwater and freshwater as well as similar marine life, it became clear that a single name for the sea was needed. In 1989, Webber requested that the Washington State Board on Geographic Names name the body of water consisting of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia, the Salish Sea. The board declined, stating that the name did not have popular usage. The first official recognition of the name came in 2008 by the Coast Salish, the region’s original inhabitants and those the name is intended to honor.
In 2009, the Washington State Board on Geographic Names, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the Geographical Names Board of Canada and, finally, the Cabinet of the province of British Columbia all approved Salish Sea as the name of this jewel of the Pacific Northwest.
FINDING HOPE in a cautionary tale: If healthy ecosystems foster economic prosperity, unhealthy ones represent lost opportunity and income. The Salish Sea is an ecological jewel, but to be completely honest, we could have done a much better job of taking care of it. Over the past 200 years, humans have drastically altered the Salish Sea to a degree previously associated only with the geological creation of ecosystems. As a result, we have diminished the ecosystem’s ability to provide for us.
The number of salmon that return to their natal streams to spawn is now a mere fraction of what it once was, and nobody is “walking across the stream on the backs of salmon.” Populations of other culturally important species, like northern abalone, are so depleted they can no longer be harvested. Cedar trees substantial enough to be used by Coast Salish to make extraordinary seagoing dugout canoes with wide beams and sweeping bows are now so rare that tribes or First Nations wanting to make a canoe must work harder to find a tree than to make the magnificent work of art. Man-made contaminants have infiltrated fish and wildlife populations to levels where they are not only causing health problems in fish, shellfish and birds, but also are putting humans who consume them at risk. And in some areas, human development has altered or completely eliminated critical habitats from the Salish Sea. The construction of river levees, for example, has entirely destroyed floodplains, deltas and salt marshes.
Unfortunately, looming threats like climate change and ocean acidification are not going to make it easy for us to make amends for what has been done. In certain watersheds, the changing climate is predicted to increase winter river flows and flooding while decreasing summer flows, which will further threaten salmon and steelhead. Ocean acidification — the progressive increase in the acidity of the ocean over an extended period primarily because of uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — will impact the survival and growth of larvae for culturally, ecologically, and economically important species, including oysters, clams and mussels, and likely pteropods, red sea urchins and northern abalone. When we consider, in addition, projections for population growth in the region, the picture for the Salish Sea is not rosy.
So what do we do? Or as Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council and one of the region’s thought leaders on Salish Sea recovery, asked: “If nature is humanity’s landlord, and we have been getting a rockin’ great deal on rent and utilities on both sides of the border, and business as usual might be a thing of the past, now what?” The first step in saving a place, or as scientists call it, place-based conservation, is for people to know their ecosystem.
That means the 8 million human residents of the Salish Sea need not only to be able to define the boundaries of the ecosystem but also to understand how it was created, to know its history, and to be able to identify the parts and processes necessary to make it work.
Once people know a place — and that includes knowing seemingly trivial highly detailed facts about it (for example, that the female giant Pacific octopus has 2,240 suckers) — they become connected to it. And once people connect to an ecosystem, it becomes personal and they want to protect and restore it. Know, connect, protect and restore. Simple, but not a new thought. Rachel Carson wrote, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
Hear the authors
Audrey DeLella Benedict and Joseph K. Gaydos, authors of “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest,” will speak at a Town Hall Seattle event at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 14 (1119 Eighth Ave.) The event is in partnership with University Book Store through the Seattle Science Lectures.
The people of the Salish Sea have rapidly embraced this ecosystem, which was only recently named. Once commonly used names like Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Islands, Gulf Islands and Strait of Georgia are slipping from the vocabulary in favor of the more encompassing name: the Salish Sea. Canadian and U.S. provincial, state, and federal agencies are looking for ways to work together, taking cues from the earliest inhabitants of the region — the people of the Coast Salish tribes and First Nations — who never knew a border.
Among the 8 million who reside in the region today, many are thinking ecosystem. World-class aquariums in Seattle and Vancouver, and hundreds of other nonprofit marine education groups are helping people know this jewel of the Pacific Northwest and inspiring them not only to care but to take action. Scientists are studying almost every major aspect of the ecosystem, and governmental and nongovernmental groups are restoring numerous aspects of the landscape, from small streams and sections of shoreline to entire river deltas. A sea change is upon the Salish Sea, and it is time for all of us to get on that wave and ride like we stole it.
In our dream for the Salish Sea, we see a day when we all recognize and know our marine resources better than we now know corporate logos. We will watch and monitor the ecosystem better than we now watch the weather or monitor Nasdaq stock quotes and the Dow Jones industrial average. And we will restore and protect the Salish Sea as if our lives and our livelihoods depend on it — because they do.