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New institute at WWU focuses on health of Salish Sea

Salish Sea is the official, overarching name for the connected marine waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Salish Sea is the official, overarching name for the connected marine waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

As the new Salish Sea Studies Institute gets rolling at Western Washington, Wayne Landis is certain of one thing: It will not be creating studies that collect dust on a library shelf.

“We won’t be doing research just because it’s interesting,” says Landis, a professor of environmental science and director of Western’s Institute for Environmental Toxicology. “We’ll integrate management science and nature with the goal of long-term management of the Salish Sea. We’ll also train students to make this happen.”

The Salish Sea, a name the institute’s founding fellow Bert Webber helped coin, refers to the body of water encompassing Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It’s home to 7 million people, and faces environmental and public health challenges from growth, industry, and other forces.

The Salish Sea crosses international and jurisdictional boundaries, so the institute’s focus is to bring together the efforts of Canada, the United States, the First Nations and Lummi Nation to learn more about the sea so it can be protected and restored.

My students will be getting practical experience, getting their hands dirty through internships and directed research.

Wayne Landis, director, Institute for Environmental Toxicology at WWU

The institute will also be home to the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference every other year in April. Scientists, tribal representatives, resource managers, community and business leaders, policymakers, educators, and students will gather to present scientific research on the sea’s ecosystem to guide future actions.

Landis says the institute will benefit Western students, especially ones studying science and management.

“My students will be getting practical experience, getting their hands dirty through internships and directed research,” he says. “They’ll be working directly with people making management decisions, people who actually want their research. The programs at the institute won’t be about just writing a thesis and graduating.”

“For students in management and administrative studies, we’ll be ensuring they understand the science so they can make informed decisions and communicate effectively to scientists, legislators, and stakeholders,” Landis says.

Webber, who is retired, taught marine science at Huxley College of the Environment. He will help shape programs at the institute, with a focus on education, scholarship, and community outreach.

Webber led a successful campaign to have Washington state, British Columbia, U.S. and Canadian agencies endorse “Salish Sea” as the overarching name for Puget Sound and the two straits. He says the decision last November to establish the institute came at a critical time for the inland marine waters.

“In 1970 there were at least 1,000 Western grebes out in Bellingham Bay, but now they’ve gone and we don’t know why,” Webber says. “Is it part of the degradation of the Salish Sea? It’s these kinds of questions the institute will address, and hopefully help restore and sustain the Salish Sea.”

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