The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest
Review By Howard Stewart
July 5, 2016
BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017 | p. 205-206
Audrey DeLella Benedict and Joseph Gaydos’s book about the Salish Sea, like Beamish and McFarlane’s recent tome on the Strait of Georgia (or North Salish Sea), The Sea Among Us, is a gorgeously illustrated and uneven treatment of a body of water that largely defines the coastal region surrounding it. The authors are on firm ground when they discuss the bio-physical environment of today’s Salish Sea, its complex geomorphology and rich biota, and the connections between them. The book is shakier when it touches on the challenges facing this contested sea today.
The many colour photos are the strength of the book; it is essentially a picture book with detailed captions. Though truly spectacular, non-experts like myself might find themselves wondering if their numerous, magnificent, clear, and bright underwater photos might not have left many elusive denizens of the deep temporarily blinded by the photographers’ lights.
The book also provides lots of interesting details such as the “longevity records” for various fish, birds, and mammals residing in the sea, with the oldest rougheye rockfish living over 200 years and the killer whale over a hundred, while the giant Pacific octopus only makes it to five. My ears hurt when I learned that mink, like me, can only dive a measly three metres under the sea, but sea otters reach an impressive ninety-seven metres and Northern elephant seals can descend to an astounding 1,735 metres.
The authors are more familiar with their American half of the sea. This explains why a photo looking south over the mouth of Howe Sound and Georgia Straight from a few hundred metres up the forested hillside is described as “… looking west from the seaside village of Horseshoe Bay” (28), and why a list of eleven “vital river arteries that nourish the Salish Sea with freshwater” (35) includes only one river on the Canadian side.
A copyeditor might have flagged empty phrases that sound impressive but upon scrutiny lack meaning, for example, “We’ve lost much and we risk far more if we fail to remember that the Salish Sea links us to the vast global ocean” (3) and, “Despite their astonishing colors, shapes and sizes, most fish species in the Salish Sea are found elsewhere in northern Pacific waters” (77).
The book treads very timidly and lightly around issues like First Nations claims and the ongoing threats of oil spills, various types of chronic pollution, ongoing expansion of port and urban infrastructure, over-harvesting of marine life, and accelerating climate change. The authors don’t really engage with any of these issues, their complex histories, or the contemporary challenges and conflicts that surround them. So, for example, an American shellfish company buying up local producers on BC’s Baynes Sound, and at the centre of growing controversy around the impacts of the industry there, is characterised merely as a “family business… committed to healthy watersheds, healthy estuaries, and healthy communities” (127).
The Indigenous people for whom the sea is named are mostly a spectral presence, more alive in the past than the present. The book’s brief history of European exploration and settlement is clearly linked with today’s Salish Sea, while short shrift is given to the previous ten millennia of human occupation. In fact, the authors’ discussion of issues relating to indigenous people and settlers is so diffident that it’s hard to know if they are sincere or ironic when they note that, “[Captain George] Vancouver’s glowing descriptions of all aspects of the Salish Sea, the scenery, the deep and sheltered bays, the immense trees, the abundant natural resources, and the friendliness of the native people amounted to an irresistible invitation to colonize” (11).
In their defence, Benedict and Gaydos do end their gorgeous book by acknowledging the vast changes that have been wrought in this sea in the last 200 years. They suggest that the “first step in saving a place… is for people to know their ecosystem,” because then “it becomes personal and they want to protect and restore it” (135). This is apparently the purpose of the book — to help people know their ecosystem. It wouldn’t have hurt to have told their readers a little more about the threats from which they might want to protect their marine ecosystem, or some details of how it got so degraded, or the challenges citizens might face if they want to better protect it in the future.
Beamish, Richard and Gordon McFarlane, editors. 2014. The Sea Among Us: The Amazing Strait of Georgia. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing.
The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest
Audrey DeLella Benedict and Joseph K. Gaydos
Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2015. 160 pp. $22.95 paper.