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Bert Webber, a retired professor from Western Washington University in Bellingham, first came up with the name Salish Sea.

JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL

Bert Webber has a plan for those don't know their Juan de Fuca Strait from a Puget Sound. Give the whole body of water - which straddles two countries and stretches from northern Vancouver Island south to the Seattle area - a brand new name. Like say, the Salish Sea.

Mr. Webber, a retired marine sciences professor, has pitched this proposal to government bodies in British Columbia and Washington state. He said the idea is so simple he doesn't know why it didn't happen years ago. When he stares out his window in Bellingham, Wash., a coastal town about 40 kilometres south of the Canadian border, he sees one body of water that just happens to straddle two countries.

Mr. Webber's idea is gaining traction on the West Coast. Last Friday, the Washington state board that approves names for geographic sites gave the green light to hear Mr. Webber's proposal. In B.C., a government spokesman said in a written statement that the province will discuss the matter with the Geographical Names Board of Canada.

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Already, most scientists and resource professionals refer to the water system as the Salish Sea, Mr. Webber said in an interview yesterday.And all understand that the waterway is a single ecosystem. So why not give it a single name? The Salish Sea, he said, would include the Strait of Georgia and the Juan de Fuca Strait in Canada, and Puget Sound to the south in Washington.

The name, Salish Sea, would not replace these waterway names, he said. Instead, one would refer to the Strait of Georgia, for example, as being in the Salish Sea.

Mr. Webber came up with the idea in the 1980s when he was doing research on the impact that oil tankers would have on marine life from Alaska to the Strait of Georgia.

"It came to me at that point that the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound and Georgia Strait were all linked together in function. There is one ecological entity," he said.

"The waters of Puget Sound, down off Seattle, if you took a scoop from the surface … it is not as salty as the Pacific Ocean. And most of that freshwater in the water off Seattle comes from the Fraser River."

The Washington board's decision is significant because Mr. Webber first made the pitch in 1990 and was roundly rebuffed. At that time, the board refused to even consider the application, citing cost and lack of support for the plan. The B.C. government also turned it down, saying it would only cause confusion.

But times have changed, Mr. Webber said. The name has worked its way into local lexicon. Most scientists refer to the waterways as the Salish Sea, his proposal argues. Boating magazines and local news reports also use the name.

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On the Canadian side, a scaled-down variation of the idea - to rename the Strait of Georgia alone - has support in principle from a cabinet minister and Premier Gordon Campbell.

The notion was raised by native groups at a First Nations Summit in 2008. George Harris, a representative of the Chemainus First Nation on Vancouver Island, said Salish Sea was a more fitting name.

Mr. Harris argues that the Salish nation inhabited the West Coast region long before the Europeans arrived and began naming the waters they explored.

The Georgia Strait was named by Captain George Vancouver after the British monarch, King George III. But archaeological evidence has suggested that aboriginal communities existed around the Strait of Georgia and its southern extension, Puget Sound, for more than 8,000 years before the Europeans arrived.

Mr. Harris said he hopes the Washington and B.C. governments approve the new name, saying it would help raise the profile of the Salish people. The issue is on the native agenda too, he added. It will be raised at the annual Coast Salish meeting in July. "It's going to happen some time," he said. "We don't want to offend anybody. All we want to do is make a positive contribution. That Salish Sea would go a long way in that direction."

If the Washington board and B.C. government approve the new name, the matter would have to move up the ladder to the federal level in both countries.

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The board is not expected to make a decision until October.

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