Bright Lights for the Salish Sea

It was another one of those mental and emotional overload experiences. Three days of more than seventy posters, plenaries, and panels about the Salish Sea. I was among the more than 2400 people registered for this year’s virtual Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference (SSEC) on the theme: “Honoring our Ancestors: Visions for Future Generations and the Salish Sea.” The transboundary (US, Canadian, and tribal waters) conference closed yesterday, and I’m far from being able to digest it all. 

As I wrote in the introduction to Writer in a Life Vest: Essays from the Salish Sea, I’m not a marine biologist, but a story-telling lover of the Salish Sea. And the SSEC? Well, as the “premier scientific research and policy gathering in the Pacific Northwest,” it was very science-y. I needed a glossary for acronyms and an interpreter for much of what people from across the U.S. and Canada —researchers, professors, policy-makers, and Indigenous leaders— described. This lay person could tell, though, that much of the science was scary.

Nobody skirted the truth that the Salish Sea and its inhabitants (human and non-human) are in trouble. 

Salish Sea Atlas by Aquila Flower

Most of the speakers have been studying the area and these issues for decades. Indigenous and First Nations peoples spoke eloquently about the earth care wisdom of generations of their families and their fears for the seven generations following us. The realities of the threats to Southern Resident Killer Whales, salmon, rivers and streams—indeed, all of life in the Salish Sea ecosystem—were confronted throughout the conference. I cried more than once.

And yet, there was talk of hope, of “bright lights” for the Salish Sea. Here are a few I learned about at the conference that I’m carrying with me as I absorb the hard news and discern my next steps.

  • There was consensus we have a moral debt to the Southern Resident Killer Whales—an obligation to ensure they can continue their lifeways in the marine space we humans share with them.  
  • Across the world, local to national governments are recognizing the rights of the non-human environment—an idea called the “rights of nature.” One such effort is being led in my own community by the non-profit Community Rights San Juan Islands (CRSJI). This group is pursuing legal recognition of the Rights of the Salish Sea, recognizing that the Salish Sea and its natural communities have the right to exist, thrive, regenerate, and evolve. 
  • BIMS – Black in Marine Science was founded by Dr. Tiara Moore in 2020 to celebrate Black marine scientists, spread environmental awareness, and inspire the next generation of marine science leaders. BIMS now includes 153 members from 24 countries. One initiative to provide underserved communities access to experiences in marine science is the BIMS Immersion Program. “BIMS Bites” on Youtube offer five-minute tidbits of different marine science topics. You’ll get the idea in this “teaser.” 
  • The Year of the Salish Sea is a youth-led effort started by students at Simon Fraser University. From June 8, 2022 (World Oceans Day) to June 7, 2023, the project will bring together First Nations, municipalities, organizations, and individuals in the Salish Sea ecosystem to work toward a healthy Salish Sea. The project’s manifesto calls on “colonial governments, industry, NGOs, and the public” to take action to protect the Salish Sea.
  • Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes shared her optimism about growing unity to breach the four Lower Snake River dams to save the threatened Chinook salmon, primary food source of Southern Resident killer whales. 

Finally, I’m taking hope and inspiration from this short film by Bob Turner. If you’re not familiar with the Salish Sea (and even if you are), I urge you to devote ten minutes to watch and listen to why it’s so rich with life. The video is full of bright lights to guide you through the work ahead to keep it that way.

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