Stefan Freelan, Western Washington University
The story of naming the Salish Sea starts with the discovery of crude oil on Alaska’s arctic shores and the plans to bring, in the mid 1970s, much of this oil into Washington state’s inland marine waters for refining. The oil industry was getting ready for this North Slope oil to come to Washington. A new refinery was being built at Cherry Point for the ARCO Company and tankers were being constructed (including the Exxon Valdez) for the trip from Valdez, Alaska to various locations in Washington’s inland marine waters, mostly around Anacortes and Cherry Point. The potential for oil spills awakened the state and federal government’s interest in studying the risk to marine resources.
The scientific knowledge that evolved because of the threat of spilled oil, combined with my lifelong interest in things associated with salt water, led me to understand that people living by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, and the Strait of Georgia all live by an unified inland sea, then unnamed.
It is the sea on which I grew up. I spent many summers as a young kid with my grandparents in White Rock, British Columbia. I would sit on the beach and wonder about the islands (mostly Orcas Island) that dominated the horizon and invited curiosity about what was beyond. As I grew older I explored, fished (recreation and commercial), sailed on, dived under, and studied the inland marine waters of British Columbia and Washington.
In 1970 I joined the faculty of Huxley College of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham. I was interested in the human impact on marine resources, and joined the deliberations of business leaders, citizens, industry representatives, and government policy makers who were trying to understand the impact of the soon-to-come oil tankers from Alaska.
One of the issues under discussion was that of names used for parts of this inland sea. At a public hearing held by the Washington state Department of Ecology to take public input on the potential threat of oil spill, the state employees used the name “northern Puget Sound” to describe the area where I lived.
This was puzzling to me because Bellingham Bay borders on the Strait of Georgia and Rosario Strait. From what I knew from charts and maps you did not get to Puget Sound until you went south of a line between Port Townsend and Admiralty Head on Whidbey Island. At one point in the hearing, a veteran tug boat captain who had skippered tugs in the area for over 20 years asked the government folks just “where is northern Puget Sound?” He said in all his years he had never seen a chart with that name.
For me the lesson of that night was the importance of being clear about the meaning of a name.
Public concern over bringing “supertankers” into Washington’s inland marine waters and the consequences of a major oil spill grew during the 1970s. A glimpse of what might happen with an oil tanker spill occurred in 1971 when 230,000 gallons of diesel fuel escaped from a fuel barge in Guemes Channel near Anacortes. There was very little ability to contain the spill, nor to evaluate its impacts. State and federal governments were unprepared to clean up and quantify the damage from this relatively small spill.
In the 1974 book Superspill, Mary Kay Becker and Patricia Coburn described a scenario of a large oil spill in Rosario Strait, foreshadowing what was to happen when the Exxon Valdez supertanker hit a rock in Prince William Sound and released an estimated 33 million gallons of crude oil into the marine environment with devastating impacts on marine life. To a large part the public concern about oil spills convinced the Washington state government to require tug escorts for tankers carrying crude oil into the inland sea.
Public concern also convinced both state and federal governments to start and continue programs of quantifying the marine resources along the tanker routes. The state Department of Ecology started an extensive study of shoreline organisms around 1974. A few years later the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started a Marine Ecosystem Analysis Program (MESA), to describe the ecology of the areas most at risk from an oil spill. MESA was an ecosystem-based study and a pioneering approach to understanding the structure and function of an entire ecosystem.
The MESA program brought together scientists from different specialties to study the ecosystem properties of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the southern part of the Strait of Georgia. Oceanographers studied the circulation of the marine waters and how and where they mixed with fresh water from the rivers. Chemists studied the ways in which the fresh water from rivers diluted the salt water from the ocean and described these patterns of salinity from the surface to the bottom and from the mouth of the rivers to the Pacific Ocean. Chemists also described the patterns of the concentration of nitrogen (the nutrient in the salt water that drives the rate of biological productivity and when in excess can cause eutrophication).
Biologists cultured the bacteria of marine sediments to learn if forms existed that could break down the hydrocarbons of crude oil (they can). The relationships of the plants and animals that live in the three-dimensional water space, (called the pelagic zone) were studied. The interactions of benthic organisms (those living in and on the substrates of shallow water), were also studied. Population numbers of many species were estimated. The resulting picture showed that organisms of the inland sea could be understood as a single food web.
I was part of that science team. What we found was an ecosystem that is best understood as an integrated inland sea consisting of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Strait of Georgia. This inland sea ecosystem had not been previously described. From our studies we learned that the foundation of this ecosystem is the interaction between the fresh water discharges from rivers flowing into the inland sea with the salt water from the Pacific Ocean.
Our inland sea is an estuary with water fresher than the ocean and saltier than the rivers. The mixing of the fresh water from the rivers and the salt water from the ocean creates a circulation of water in the inland sea that is the foundation of the estuarine ecosystem. As the fresh water of the rivers mixes with the salty ocean water, the water near the surface of the inland sea, now a diluted mixture of Pacific Ocean water and river water pushes seaward towards the western mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
To replace this somewhat diluted estuarine surface salt water as it leaves the inland sea, deep ocean water at the western entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca is pulled in and flows near the bottom of the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. This deep oceanic water gradually is pulled to the surface by the estuarine circulation and joins the surface current that pulls it towards the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The volume of water exchanged between the Pacific Ocean and the inland sea by this estuarine circulation is huge. Each year a volume equal to the entire volume of the inland sea exits to the Pacific Ocean in surface waters and fills the inland sea at depth with Pacific Ocean water.
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