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Why the name ‘Salish Sea’ gets the scale wrong

[BY HARRY BRANCH]

Here is a link to another story about the Salish Sea. Perhaps someone can explain a few things to me.

The term Salish applies to a grouping of languages spoken by people ranging through parts of British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana. Are we under-representing the significance of individual groups of closely knit people while trying to create a grouping more to our contemporary concept of scale? The reality was a more ecological sound scale. Cecelia Svinth Carpenter never referred to her people as Salish. Her “tribe” were the Sequalitchew. They interpreted it to mean “long shallow runout,” descriptive of the Sequalitchew Creek estuary, which is now bisected by railroad tracks. I’m concerned that lumping so much together diminishes the individual components.

The term Salish Sea is said to define a common ecosystem. I suppose it depends on our definition. Some folks think the earth is one big ecosystem, an idea that to me seems to negate the meaning of the word. To the north, the Straight of Georgia, Gulf Islands, Desolation Sound and Jervis and other Inlets are dominated by hard rock, moss and lichen and fascinating intertidal zonation. Heading south we have the big estuary of the Frasier River, the San Juan Islands and at least three ecosystems as we ascend Mount Constitution, the oceanic environment of Juan de Fuca, a deep fjord lying behind a sill at Admiralty Inlet, three more river estuaries and everything south of the narrows, which is a unique blend of salt marsh, tide flats and overhanging vegetation.

An ecosystem is a community of organisms and nonliving components interacting as a system, linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. Material that forms the topography controls the overall structure of an ecosystem and the way things work within it. Ecosystems are dynamic, being subject to periodic disturbances from which they are often in the process of recovering through a succession of species. Ecosystem-based management suggests that rather than managing individual species, natural resources should be managed at the level of ecologically distinct and homogenous units. Regardless of which parameter we look at, the ecological and oceanographic differences between the north and south of the Salish Sea are profound. They are not an ecologically homogeneous unit and trying to re-define them as such is only going to cause more confusion.

Redefining scale is a trick in advertising designed to cause overload and ambiguity. Our calling it all the Salish Sea corresponds to our redefining Puget Sound as one big estuary. It’s a way to negate and overlook the estuaries within. In many assessments of the Puget Sound “estuary,” individual stream estuaries don’t even exist.


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