Puget Sound vs. Salish Sea

For conservation efforts, distinction matters.

While the names are often used interchangeably, Puget Sound is a part of the larger Salish Sea, a name that was first introduced in 1989 and officially recognized by Washington state and British Columbia in 2009.

Puget Sound is a diverse marine habitat with significant ecological, cultural, and economic importance for people all across Washington. Although there are slight discrepancies among definitions, simply put, a sound is a narrow passage of water between a mainland and an island. Sounds typically consist of inlets webbing in and out from the land. Puget Sound is defined by Washington State Legislature as, “all salt waters of the state of Washington inside the international boundary line between Washington and British Columbia, and lying east of the junction of the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the rivers and streams draining to Puget Sound as mapped by water resource inventory areas 1 through 19 in WAC 173-500-040 as it exists on July 1, 2007.” About two-thirds of Washington’s population lives in the Puget Sound region and much of the state’s economy and recreation activities depend on these rich waters.

The Salish Sea encompasses a larger area, containing Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Strait of Georgia. The naming and distinction of the Salish Sea was motivated by wide scale concern over the risk of major oil spills in the 1970s. As more attention was being placed on the waters from Seattle to British Columbia, residents and government agencies alike began to recognize the importance of distinguishing between inlet areas. The name Salish Sea, named after the area’s first residents, the Coast Salish, was suggested in 1989 and both Washington State and British Columbia voted to recognize the name in 2009. Saltwater from the Pacific Ocean mixes with freshwater from surrounding watersheds to support the rich biodiversity of the Salish Sea. The inland sea area has fresher water than the ocean but saltier water than river systems, enabling a wide variety of marine mammals, fish, birds, and invertebrates to thrive, in addition to the 7 million residents who call the Salish Sea region home.

The waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea are being increasingly impacted by human activities and are starting to show the strain. Numerous scientific studies in recent decades have shown how issues like overpopulation, pollution, and habitat loss threaten these important ecosystems. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of Salish Sea wildlife species listed as threatened or endangered nearly doubled from 64 to 113. A variety of government and nonprofit groups are working to combat the environmental degradation the Sound is facing and preserve the health of these waters for years to come. Residents of the region can commit to simple actions like using less chemicals on lawns and properly maintaining septic tanks and car engines to reduce environmental contaminants. To learn more about how you can help protect the Salish Sea from pollution, visit https://ecology.wa.gov/About-us/Get-involved/What-you-can-do/Washington-Waters-ours-to-protect.