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Meet the man behind the 'Salish Sea'

This article was first published in The Globe and Mail

More information can also be found with this great map of the Salish Sea

Bert Webber first proposed the name change that B.C. is now considering for the Strait of Georgia


Special to The Globe and Mail

March 13, 2008

VICTORIA -- The man who first envisaged the name change says B.C. can have it both ways rather than choosing between the Strait of Georgia and the Salish Sea.

Bert Webber, a Bellingham marine biologist, first proposed calling the marine waters of southern B.C. and northern Washington the Salish Sea in an interview with the Bellingham Herald in 1988. Any name change would require approval from both sides of the border, since the southern end of the Strait of Georgia is in U.S. territory.

The name Salish Sea has buzzed around the area ever since and even made its way as a formal request to the B.C. and Washington State governments, where it was turned down flat in 1990.

Mr. Webber, now a retired marine biology professor from Western Washington University, says his plan was to name all three major inland waterways of the region the Salish Sea.

The idea being considered in B.C., with the encouragement of Premier Gordon Campbell and Aboriginal Relations Minister Mike de Jong, is to rename only the Strait of Georgia the Salish Sea.

Mr. de Jong endorsed the idea after it was put forward at a First Nations Summit last week. He promised to take it to cabinet, launching a debate along the coast about place names and the traditions they symbolize. On Monday, Mr. Campbell welcomed the discussion and called the idea "a matter of political respect" of the region's native history.

The Premier said all British Columbians should consider the new name, but he might have included Washingtonians as well. The Strait of Georgia, named after King George III, extends into Washington as far as Lummi Island, just north of Bellingham.

Under Mr. Webber's plan, which drew support from groups as diverse as government scientists, native bands and especially Gulf and San Juan Islands residents, the Salish Sea would be the all-embracing name for Puget Sound and the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, which would all retain their own names as well.

Mr. Webber, 66, is perhaps as qualified as anyone to suggest sweeping changes to the way the coastal waters that run between the two countries are perceived.

He is a dual citizen, born and raised in the Lower Mainland, and since 1970 has lived in Bellingham, a nearly Canadian city just 30 kilometres south of the border. He spent his entire career studying the marine ecology of the area, including 10 years sailing the Snow Goose, a 65-foot research ship used for marine-science education. From his home overlooking Bellingham Bay, "I can listen to the CBC and pretend the border isn't there."

Mr. Webber's proposal was about more than honouring the history of the Salish people, who have lived along these waters on both sides of the border for centuries.

"Names are important because they define an area and allow us to look at it as an entity, to get beyond artificial boundaries and decide how we're going to manage it," he said in an interview yesterday.

The three inland waterways are all affected by the flows of the Fraser River, and they share similar marine life that is different from the biology of the outer coast, as well as similar challenges such as pollution and fisheries management.

Mr. Webber said many bodies of water in the world share an overall name but still keep local and regional names, and there is no reason to abandon the name Strait of Georgia if Salish Sea is adopted.

He wrote and talked about his proposed new name in the late 1980s and early '90s to see whether it would draw support along the cross-border waters. "I thought it was a pretty good idea and if it was useful, it would gain traction."

And that it did, on both sides of the border. Briony Penn, a writer and geographer who lives on Saltspring Island, picked up the idea in B.C., dropping references to the Salish Sea into her column in Monday Magazine in Victoria. She helped launch a community mapping project which became a book called Islands in the Salish Sea.

Native groups started using the term, including the Coast Salish Aboriginal Council, which held a Salish Sea Conference in Sequim, Wash., in 2005. The name keeps cropping up on various government-supported initiatives such as the Coast Salish Sea Initiative, a joint project between B.C. and federal agencies and native people that also uses yet another name for the region, the Georgia Basin.

But government agencies turned thumbs down on Mr. Webber's idea. In June of 1990, more than a year after he formally recommended the name change, Bonnie Bunning of the Washington Board of Geographic Names refused his request, citing cost and lack of support for the idea among various agencies and native groups.

In a letter to Ms. Bunning, also in June of 1990, B.C. government toponymist Janet Mason was even more definitive. "Without exception, there is no support for the adoption of 'Salish Sea' or any other name for the area." She called the idea "a theoretical concept" that would only exacerbate confusion and controversy over coastal place names.

Reached yesterday, Ms. Mason said the proposal to rename the Strait of Georgia is "a different matter. The goalposts have been moved, we start again."