10 years after Salish Sea is named, experts say united front on conservation still distant

A decade after the Salish Sea was named with the hope nations would improve collaboration on conservation, scientists and First Nations say that has not been fully realized and the waterway is suffering because of it.

The 18,000 square kilometresea encompasses inland waterways stretching from the south end of Puget Sound in Washington State to Desolation Sound at the northern end of the Strait of Georgia in B.C., including the Juan de Fuca Strait.

The name, adopted by the province and First Nations leaders in 2010, pays homage to the use of the waterways for thousands of years by Indigenous people.

Marine biologist Bert Webber, a member of the advisory board to the Salish Sea Institute, was an early proponent of the name change.

“If we’re going to understand it, and if we’re going to protect it, it really needs a name. If you don’t have a name, you really don’t have any way of talking about something,” Webber told All Points West in August.

Stz’uminus elder George Harris from Vancouver Island brought the idea of a name change to the province in 2008. 

“To us it was always one anyway. We didn’t put the Canada-U.S. border in …  [it] divided our Coast Salish nation,” said Harris, also on All Points West.

Pandemic impacting collaboration

The sea doesn’t recognize borders either.

Thirty per cent of the freshwater that ends up in Puget Sound comes from the Fraser River. And the Southern Resident Killer Whales, as well as many species of salmon, swim freely across the 49th parallel.

This means environmental policy in Canada and the U.S. are sometimes connected. But Webber said collaboration has been difficult during the pandemic border closures:

“Telephone conversations and emails back and forth are just not the same as being able to come together in creative groups of people that are talking about common problems, and working toward common solutions.”

A bulk carrier cargo ship travelling on the Salish Sea near Port Renfrew, B.C., is seen from a National Aerial Surveillance Program flight in February 2014. The federal government uses aerial surveillance to monitor pollution such as oil spills from ships in Canadian waters. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

Joseph Gaydos, science director at SeaDoc Society, says while there is much collaboration between scientists and First Nations in both countries, that decreases the further up the political ladder you go.

“I would give us a solid C, on an A through B, C, D, E scale. [Governments] want to be doing better, but the systems are just not really set up well to work together,” said Gaydos on All Points West

Canadian and American researchers have collaborated on efforts to protect the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales that swim freely across the 49th parallel. (Valerie Shore/Shorelines Photography)

Gaydos’ work revolves around endangered species and he says the impacts of a lack of policy on marine life are “potentially huge” and he hasn’t seen much urgency reflected in government policies.

“[The governments] don’t always think on both sides of the border. They don’t always consider the tribal and First Nations implications of things they’re doing,” said Gaydos. “We’re all linked together. If we don’t put that in the forefront, we’re all going to suffer.”

‘Listen to our people’

Although many hoped the name change would improve conservation, Harris says he hasn’t seen much evidence of that.

He’s concerned about a decline in salmon populations, the impacts of invasive species and environmental degradation from industrial permits along the waterway. 

Mt. Douglas beach in Saanich, B.C. The 18,000 square kilometre Salish Sea encompasses inland waterways stretching from the south end of Puget Sound in Washington State to Desolation Sound at the northern end of the Strait of Georgia in B.C., including the Juan de Fuca Strait. (Mike McArthur/CBC News)

Harris says that First Nations are slowly gaining more say in what happens to the waterway but it doesn’t go far enough.

He wants governments to listen more attentively to what First Nations want.

“I have no confidence that people do listen to our people. We are the Indigenous people of our land. And we’ve seen the big changes. If my elders, ancestors, could see what our beaches and our oceans, the state of our oceans and beaches now … they would be very sad,” said Harris.

CBC News reached out to Environment and Climate Change Canada for comment but did not receive a response by deadline. 

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