Article Title

The Naming of the Salish Sea: A Legal, Historical, and Cultural Exploration


Salish Sea, geographic naming

Document Type



Did you know that when you gaze over Puget Sound from your office window, ride a ferry to the San Juan Islands, or go sea kayaking on the Strait of Georgia, you are engaging with the Salish Sea? The familiar waters in and around our state have a new name and an evolving identity as a complex and delicate marine ecosystem. The legal process that resulted in the formal naming of the Salish Sea opened up the possibility for further study and environmental preservation of this “new” inland sea.

Last year, I received an unusual research request to track legal documentation for how the newly named Salish Sea — the body of water encompassing Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Strait of Georgia — got its name. The geographic naming process turned out to be more complex than I imagined and involved as much law as it did culture, history, and ecology. Not much is written about how geographic naming works in our state and it was difficult to unravel the history of the Salish Sea. This article will explain how the geographic naming process works in Washington and at the federal level, using the Salish Sea as a contemporary example of how we regulate the names we give to the land and water around us.