On February 9, 2010, the government of British Columbia announces the province's adoption of "Salish Sea" as an overlay name for the combined inland marine waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Strait of Georgia. Following approval by the state of Washington and the U.S. and Canadian governments, the announcement caps a decades-long effort by Bert Webber (b. 1941), a marine biologist in Bellingham, to win endorsement of a common term for the connected waters to emphasize the cross-border need to protect and improve them, using a name that pays homage to the Salish peoples who for millennia have lived along the inland sea.
Webber was well-suited to his Salish Sea naming quest. He was born on October 15, 1941, in New Westminster, British Columbia, one of two sons of the owners of a commercial printing business in Burnaby. During Webber's youth, the family enjoyed camping trips, vacations to the beach, and salmon-fishing trips. After graduating from high school in Burnaby, Webber pursued his interest in nature by earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1963, and a doctoral degree in marine ecology in 1966, both at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Next came two years of post-doctoral research at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, where he studied reproductive cycles in abalone, followed by two years teaching at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Wake Forest was Webber's first teaching job, but Winston-Salem sits in the heart of North Carolina, some 200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and he yearned to return to the marine waters of the Northwest.
Webber's opportunity came in 1970, when he joined the faculty to teach marine ecology at Huxley College of the Environment, a part of Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Whatcom County.
Webber's research interests at Huxley included the impacts people have marine resources, so in the 1970s he began studying the potential consequences of proposed tankers carrying oil from Alaska's North Slope to refineries in Western Washington, including ones at Cherry Point, in Whatcom County, and at Anacortes to the south in Skagit County.
The Importance of Names
During a public hearing on the threat of oil spills, Webber heard state employees use the term "northern Puget Sound" when referring to the marine waters adjacent to Whatcom County. He also heard people at the hearing insist they had never heard that term used for those waters. That piqued Webber's early interest in the importance of geographic names.
The name Puget Sound comes from Peter Puget, a second lieutenant who served with British explorer Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) on the sloop Discovery. In May 1792, after Puget explored the marine waters south of the Tacoma Narrows, his appreciative captain named them in his honor. Over time, popular usage and government actions expanded use of the name Puget Sound northward, first to the line between Port Townsend and Whidbey Island, then farther north to the international border with Canada.
The Strait of Juan de Fuca, the waterway that connects the Pacific Ocean to Puget Sound and that forms the international boundary between British Columbia's Vancouver Island and Washington's Olympic Peninsula, reflects the name of a Greek sailor who claimed he entered the strait during a Spanish expedition in 1592.
The Strait of Georgia lies between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Vancouver named the strait in June 1792 to honor King George III of England.
According to Webber, Native Americans in Washington and First Peoples in British Columbia had their own names for various parts of the three bodies of water, but no name for the combined waters. At least since the 1950s, terms used by researchers and others to refer to the inland waters included Western Sea, and such cumbersome terms as Georgia Basin/Puget Sound Bioregion and Georgia Basin/Puget Sound Transboundary Ecosystem.
A Single Name to Reflect Connected Waters
In his account of naming the Salish Sea, Webber wrote that by the mid-1980s ongoing research that began in the 1970s "showed without question that these three bodies of water [Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Strait of Georgia] were better understood as a single integral ecosystem. From the perspective of ecology there is no one place where the Strait of Georgia ends and Puget Sound begins" ("Naming the Salish Sea"). And he noted that this single ecosystem was an "estuary ecosystem" distinct from other waters in the region:
"From our studies we learned that the foundation of this ecosystem is the interaction between the salt water from the Pacific Ocean and fresh water discharges from rivers flowing into the inland sea" ("Naming the Salish Sea").
Webber decided the inland sea needed its own name to emphasize the waters' interconnectedness and the need for unified efforts to protect and restore the sea. So on March 8, 1989, he filed an application with the Washington State Board on Geographic Names seeking approval for the name Salish Sea for the cross-border sea. "Salish Sea" would not replace "Puget Sound," "Strait of Georgia," or "Strait of Juan de Fuca," but would be an overlay name that people could use when referring to the inland sea in its entirety.
Thus defined, the Salish Sea encompassed about 7,000 square miles, with 60 percent of that area in British Columbia and the rest in Washington, with some 7 million people living near the sea.
Webber later explained that protecting the sea was the impetus for an having an all-encompassing name, while honoring the sea's original inhabitants the basis for the specific name he proposed:
"I knew that the tribes around our inland sea from both British Columbia and Washington State all shared a historical connection with the Coast Salish language. ... The name Salish Sea acknowledges the first peoples to live on the shores of our inland sea" ("Naming the Salish Sea").
At the time the Washington board tabled action on Webber's proposal, saying usage of the name Salish Sea wasn't widespread. However over subsequent years the use of "Salish Sea" grew in popularity. By the early years of the twenty-first century, the name began showing up in internet references, newspaper and magazine articles, books and college classes, and writings and presentations by researchers and natural-resource managers. Tribes and First Nations in Washington and British Columbia used the term Salish Sea when they formed the Coast Salish Gathering organization in 2005 to protect marine resources.
Second Try Succeeds
Webber decided to resubmit his Salish Sea proposal in 2008 after George Harris, a leader of Chemainus First Nation (now the Stz'uminus First Nation) on Vancouver Island, suggested that the Strait of Georgia be renamed the Salish Sea. Webber thought it made better sense that "Salish Sea" refer to Puget Sound and the straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca. Harris later supported Webber's idea.
His second time around, Webber knew that he needed support from Coast Salish tribes in Washington and British Columbia, so he talked to their resource-management leaders about his proposal. They agreed to reach out to tribes and First Nations for support, an effort that paid off later when the Coast Salish Gathering endorsed the Salish Sea name at a meeting in Whistler, B.C., in July 2009.
Webber resubmitted his naming proposal to the state Board on Geographic Names on December 5, 2008. Given the cross-border nature of his proposal, he also submitted an application the same month to the British Columbia Geographical Names Office. The two agencies coordinated their review, timing, and public outreach for Webber's proposal.
During the review process, widespread support for "Salish Sea" was evident. By this author's count, 66 statements of support were submitted to the record, compared to 17 opposed and 15 stating "no objection." Statements of support came from tribes and First Nations, local governments on both sides of the border, Parks Canada, The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, and the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, among many others.
One supporter worked in the Marine Monitoring Unit of the Washington State Department of Ecology:
"As a government scientist whose job it is to study those three bodies of water, I wholeheartedly endorse the proposal ... Furthermore, it would make my job easier and my reports more readable!" ("Geographic Name Application").
Statements of opposition, mostly from individuals, generally questioned the cost and need of the proposal. One wrote:
"This is some loose group's hobby horse. It seems to be motivated by some warped sense of political correctness, and the belief that it will somehow give impetus to preservation efforts" ("Geographic Name Application").
On the Canadian side, the federal Geographical Names Board of Canada approved the name change on August 7, 2009, pending approval by the other boards involved. On the United States side, the Washington board approved "Salish Sea" on October 30, 2009, followed by approval from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names on November 12. British Columbia completed the loop when its approval was publicly announced in the traditional Speech from the Throne presented by Lieutenant Governor Steven L. Point at the opening session of the provincial parliament on February 9, 2010.
As a result, the name Salish Sea was allowed, but not required, on official maps, charts, and other documents, records, and materials in the two countries. The French form of Salish Sea, Mer des Salish, was also approved at the federal level in Canada.
Support for the name Salish Sea continued. Early in 2010, the American Name Society declared Salish Sea its 2009 "name of the year" and its "place name of the year." And in 2011, Washington State Ferries launched a new ferry named M/V Salish. Other smaller-scale uses of the name included the Students for the Salish Sea club at Western Washington University and Salish Sea Midwifery in Bellingham.
Remaining Active on Environmental Issues
In 1994 Webber and his wife, Sue Webber, also a marine biologist, who taught Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, bought a 63-foot steel-hull vessel, the Snow Goose. More than 25,000 students participated in science outings aboard their vessel, and during the summer the Webbers chartered the Snow Goose for educational tours along the British Columbia coast to Southeast Alaska. They sold the Snow Goose in 2006; the new owner continued to operate it for student outings and for Inland Passage trips.
Webber retired from Huxley in 2004, but remained active in Whatcom County environmental issues involving water resources. He also became a founding fellow at the Salish Sea Studies Institute, created in 2015 at Western Washington University to promote scholarly and student research about the sea and to offer a forum for agencies, tribes, First Nations, and other parties in the United States and Canada concerned about the future of the inland sea.