Survey illustrates a lack of familiarity with the Salish Sea


Washington and British Columbia residents are largely unfamiliar with the Salish Sea. A recent study conducted by the SeaDoc Society and Oregon State University reveals a need to improve geographic literacy and familiarity with the Salish Sea among those communities who share and live alongside this integrated transboundary ecosystem. This is a guest blog from two of the collaborators on the survey, David Trimbach of Oregon State University and Joe Gaydos, Science Director at the SeaDoc Society. 

By David Trimbach and Joe Gaydos

Do place names matter? For about a decade the Salish Sea has been recognized as the official toponym (place name) of the transboundary sea and integrated ecosystem that includes the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound. While the name may be formalized and known to regional scientists, planners, governments, and some coastal communities, the name is still relatively unfamiliar to many residents of Washington (WA) and British Columbia (BC). This lack of familiarity is highlighted by a new study released by the SeaDoc Society and Oregon State University. The study builds upon interdisciplinary research focused on geographic literacy and toponymy (study of place names) with the intention of illustrating what residents call and know about the shared transboundary Salish Sea.

Geographic literacy refers to, “the ability to understand, process, and utilize spatial data,” and includes geographic knowledge (e.g.: What do people know about a place? Do people know place names?) and geospatial recognition (e.g.: Can people identify or locate a place on a map?) (Turner and Leydon 2012, p. 54). Geographic literacy and awareness are often assessed by the National Geographic Society (Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic Society 2016; Roper Public Affairs 2006) and American Geographical Society (Kozak et al. 2013, 2015). According to the National Geographic Society, geographic literacy, including of place names, is integral to making place-dependent decisions (Edelson 2014). Place names inform and contribute to sense of place, including an individual’s place attachment, identity, dependence, meaning, and behaviors (Cresswell 2015; Helleland 2015; Masterson et al. 2017). Building upon this research, Dr. David J. Trimbach of Oregon State University, a trained geographer, developed a geographic literacy survey with an emphasis on place names (e.g.: Salish Sea) in collaboration with the SeaDoc Society.

Using Qualtrics survey software and stratified sampling to ensure generalizability, Trimbach solicited responses from approximately 2,405 (n) Washington and British Columbia residents. Residents were asked targeted close-ended questions focused on geographic knowledge and geospatial recognition. Responses were analyzed to highlight demographic attribute relationships and predictors with an emphasis on place of residence (e.g.: Does living in WA or BC relate to and/or predict specific geographic literacy question responses or response patterns?).

Overall, the survey’s findings illustrate a low and/or lack of geographic literacy among Washington and British Columbia residents when it comes to the Salish Sea. Survey participants’ responses reflect a general lack of geographic knowledge and geospatial recognition when it comes to the Salish Sea place name. Residents do recognize that the waterbody is comprised of saltwater, but do not necessarily share descriptive language.

Image 1: Map shown in survey.
Image 1: Map shown in survey.

This level of geographic literacy is illustrated by response patterns to a map-based question that sought to solicit geospatial recognition among survey participants. When asked to identify the body of water illustrated on a map (Image 1) by name, BC and WA residents’ responses differed significantly. Over 50% of WA residents identified the body of water as “Puget Sound” and 36% of BC residents selected the “Strait of Georgia” (Figure 1). “Salish Sea” was marginally selected by WA (9%) and BC (15%) residents (Figure 1). Based on the responses, there was a significant and strong association between place of residence (BC/WA) and place name identification when prompted with a map. This significant and strong association demonstrates variation in how residents visualized or mentally mapped the region’s bodies of water. This association also illustrates that place of residence mattered when it came to how participants identified water bodies on a map. This association was also illustrated elsewhere and reflected that place of residence was a major predictor of responses among survey participants.

Figure 1. Place Name Responses to Map (Image 1)
Figure 1. Place Name Responses to Map (Image 1)

Overall, the survey’s findings indicate inconsistent place names, that may equate to inconsistent, divergent, or conflicting understandings of place (geographic literacy and sense of place) more broadly. Since the Salish Sea remains unfamiliar for many WA and BC residents, there does not seem to be a unifying and shared place name for the transboundary sea, that likely may inform regional planning, management, outreach, research, and education efforts aimed at improving the Salish Sea’s ecosystem. Trimbach recommends a multi-strategy approach, including: Salish Sea-focused targeted communications, education, outreach, and research; collaboration with partners to emphasize common geographic/place name language; and survey replication in the future to track change in the region. Some strategies stem from formal geographic education and literacy efforts; however, geographic education extends far beyond the classroom. As Trimbach notes, “Geographic literacy and place names matter, particularly when it comes to mobilizing communities and decision-makers around complex place-dependent problems. If communities are not sharing place names or understandings of place itself, such problems may be more difficult to collectively communicate and solve.” Improving and/or expanding geographic literacy and shared place names is one of many steps that can help improve the Salish Sea’s ecosystem.


Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic Society. 2016. What College-Aged Students Know About the World: A Survey of Global Literacy. New York: Council on Foreign Relations.

Cresswell, T. 2015. Place: an introduction. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Edelson, D. C. 2014. Geo-Literacy [National Geographic Society online article.]. Available at:

Helleland, B. 2012. Place Names and Identities. Oslo Studies in Language. 4 (2): 95-116.

Kozak, S. L., Dobson, J. E., Wood, J. S., Wells, W. R., and Haynes, D. 2013. The American Geographical Society’s Geographic Knowledge and Values Survey: Report of Results for the United States. Brooklyn, NY: The American Geographical Society.

Kozak, S. L., Dobson, J. E., Wood, J. S. 2015. Geography’s American constituency: results from the AGS geographic knowledge and values survey. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. 24 (3): 201-222.

Masterson, V. A., Stedman, R. C., Enqvist, J., Tengö, M., Giusti, M., Wahl, D., and Svedin, U. 2017. The contribution of sense of place to socio-ecological systems research: a review and research agenda. Ecology and Society. 22 (1): 49.

Roper Public Affairs. 2006. National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs: 2006 Geographic Literacy Study. New York: GfK NOP.

Turner, S. and Leydon, J. 2012. Improving Geographic Literacy among First-Year Undergraduate Students: Testing the Effectiveness of Online Quizzes. Journal of Geography. 111: 54-66.

Dr. David Trimbach is a postdoctoral research associate with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. Dr. Joe Gaydos is Science Director at The SeaDoc Society, part of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.