Western leads largest-ever Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

Left to right: Elliott Smith of WWU’s Center for Canadian-American Studies, Chief Gibby Jacob of the Squamish Nation, Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl'azt'en Nation and United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and Chairman Billy Frank, Jr. of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Council were honored in a traditional Coast Salish blanket ceremony the evening of Thursday May 1 at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference. Photo by Kevin McCabe, Consulate General of Canada in Seattle. Used with permission.

Don Alper
Director, Center for Canadian-American Studies

This past week in Seattle, Western led the largest-ever Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference. The Conference brought more than 1,200 of the top professionals in marine science, shoreline management, fisheries and related fields, as well as policymakers, Tribal and First Nations leaders and industry stakeholders from around British Columbia and Washington state.

Western was well-represented at the conference, with 30-plus presentations and posters offered by WWU faculty and students. Ben Miner, as associate professor of biology, presented his research on Sea Star Wasting Syndrome and its effects on Sea Star populations along the West Coast of North America. He presented data on the patterns, lab experiments and genetic work that is being done on Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. The experimental work for Miner’s research is being done at Western, with collaborators at Cornell University and University of California, Santa Cruz.

Jude Apple, a marine scientist at Western's Shannon Point Marine Center, chaired a session on the effect of changing water quality on benthic habitats of the Salish Sea. Apple presented on the work he has been doing in collaboration with Northwest Indian College investigating the occurrence of low dissolved oxygen (hypoxia) in the deep waters of Bellingham Bay. This research has revealed current and future challenges facing water quality and hypoxia in Bellingham Bay, including nutrient inputs, algal blooms and climate change. Natasha Christman, a 2013 summer intern at Shannon Point, also presented a poster on her independent research project on Bellingham Bay hypoxia.

Stephanie Messa, a graduate student at Western's Huxley College of the Environment, presented a poster on the Sumas Abbotsford Aquifer international task force. After the presentation, Messa said, representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada asked for a copy of her thesis, which studied the plausibility of informal working groups moving forward in the Salish Sea ecosystem.

The conference, first held in the early 1990s, was previously known as the Georgia Basin / Puget Sound Research Conference. Its name was changed in 2011 to reflect the growing awareness that the Salish Sea is one trans-boundary ecosystem. Western, this year’s conference organizer and lead sponsor, partnered with the Fraser Basin Council in Vancouver, B.C.,  and the Puget Sound Partnership in Seattle to revive the conference, which had foundered with cutbacks in federal, state and foundation funding in the recent recession.

A highlight of the conference was a speech from the late Billy Frank Jr., a legendary advocate for tribal fishery rights and Salish Sea Environmental conservation and the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Council. Frank spoke to conference attendees at a special Tribal and First Nations Dinner on Thursday, May 1. He was honored by the Swinomish Tribe and Coast Salish Gathering in a traditional Coast Salish blanket ceremony, along with Chief Gibby Jacob of the Squamish Nation, Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl'azt'en Nation and United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Also blanketed at the same ceremony was Elliott Smith of WWU’s Center for Canadian-American Studies. Chairman Frank’s speech at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference was one of his last public appearances. He passed away unexpectedly on Monday May 5.

The 2014 Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference was highly successful with a final tally of 1,247 registrants, including 176 students, more than 90 representatives from Tribes and First Nations and more than 450 scientific presenters.