• Photo: Flickr/scazon

Salmon were plentiful in the waters off the coast of British Columbia when Bert Webber was a child, but as the Canadian-born marine biologist grew older, he saw fewer and fewer fish return. This prompted him to try to protect the Strait of Georgia, the Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound. “The first step in ecosystem management is to identify the place you want to manage,” says the retired Western Washington University professor, whose name for the region — the Salish Sea — has finally been enshrined, more than 20 years after he first proposed it.

The name Salish comes from the Coast Salish people, the first inhabitants of the region. The Salish Sea encompasses nearly 16,925 square kilometres of water and 7,470 kilometres of coastline. When Webber approached the Washington State Board on Geographic Names (WSBGN) with the designation in 1989, his suggestion went nowhere. Slowly, however, the tide turned.

Salish Sea (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)

Businesses, tribes, artists, scientists and others started using the name, and as the region faced environmental challenges, such as habitat degradation, toxic contamination and rapid population growth, the need for a common perception of the waters became more critical. Several species that rely on these seas, including orcas, Pacific salmon and marbled murrelets, are endangered, signalling the need for transboundary conservation efforts.

Webber submitted his proposal again, and in October 2009, the WSBGN officially endorsed the name, followed last year by the American and Canadian governments and the province of British Columbia. “The renaming of the Salish Sea is one of the most significant changes to the world’s geographic map in the last decade,” says University of Victoria geography professor Reuben Rose-Redwood, because it creates a new transnational space which emphasizes the cultural significance of the longstanding indigenous presence in the region.

“It is a recognition of our long historical use of our waterways,” says Squamish Nation Chief Gibby Jacob. His nation and other Coast Salish tribes in British Columbia and Washington meet yearly in what is known as the Coast Salish Gathering to discuss environmental concerns in the shared region.

“Having one name makes people feel united,” says Joe Gaydos, chief scientist for the SeaDoc Society, a non-profit marine science group that has used the name for several years and facilitates scientific collaborations and information sharing in the region. Webber hopes this recognition will help reverse the environmental decline that prompted him to take action. “You can’t understand a place,” he says, “unless you have a name for it.”