LEGAL RIGHTS FOR THE SALISH SEA – Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Salish Sea?

The Salish Sea stretches from the north end of the Strait of Georgia in Canada to the south end of the Puget Sound and west to include the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

More than 8 million of us live in the communities surrounding the Salish Sea. Our lives and well-being depend on the health of the Salish Sea:

  • It provides much of the oxygen we breathe.
  • It protects us from extreme weather events.
  • It absorbs and sequesters climate-change-causing carbon dioxide emissions.
  • It is a source of food and livelihoods.

Our futures are entwined! Yet despite numerous environmental protections enacted over the years, the Salish Sea is in trouble. Nationally, 53% of ocean and coastal waters are listed as impaired, and more than 113 marine species are considered “at risk or vulnerable to extinction.”  This decline includes our Southern Resident Orca population—there are fewer than 80 of these whales remain today, despite being protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2005, and their future is increasingly uncertain.

Clearly, we need a new approach.

What does is mean for the Salish Sea to have “legal rights”?

Our petition proposes a new law defining the Salish Sea as a “legal entity subject to basic rights”—no longer property and owned by the State, but instead acknowledged as an indivisible and living whole with inherent rights including the right to life, health and well-being, diversity, clean water and air, and full and prompt restoration and representation.

How would this work?

First, we’d need to work with the communities surrounding the Salish Sea to create a marine protected area that includes all of the Salish Sea. Then we’d establish a comprehensive and multi-stakeholder management board responsible for overseeing all decisions that might affect the health of the Sea. Different from most management boards, this board’s members would serve as “guardians” responsible for representing the Salish Sea’s interests in decisions and disputes.

Local communities would be empowered to defend and protect the Salish Sea—and that would include holding accountable those who violate the community’s rights to a healthy environment.

Don’t we already have enough environmental laws and regulations?

Despite international laws and agreements designed to sustain and protect the ocean, marine biodiversity and health is in decline. This is because we largely value the ocean as a resource and property rather than as a life-giving partner.

As a result, many of our current laws still allow pollution and degradation, which only slows environmental decline rather than preventing it or restoring environmental health.

Consider two of our current statutes in Washington State: The Shorelines Management Act and the Public Trust Doctrine. Both protect the environment of the Salish Sea primarily for the public, or human communities.

The new law would protect the Salish Sea for all species and future generations.

The new law would require pre-emptive protective action on behalf of the Salish Sea, rather than correcting decisions once damage has already been inflicted.

The new law is meant to complement and further evolve existing legislation, not replace it. It is meant to provide a new “holistic” lens requiring that all decisions, powers and functions that involve or that may affect the Salish Sea take into account its inherent rights. It also ensures that the Salish Sea has human representation of its interests in decision-making and disputes.

What would this law mean for my property rights?

Existing private property rights would not be infringed upon. However, the new law would mean that an owner of property couldn’t cause “substantial harm” to the natural entities that not only exist on the property but also depend on it. It would seek to forward a vision in which humans have a responsibility toward nature—where they are part of, and not apart from, the earth community.

What does this mean for human and indigenous rights?

Our effort is part of the “Rights of Nature” movement, which DOES NOT eliminate recognition of human rights but rather DOES level the playing field so that not only corporations and humans have rights. With this approach, ALL relevant stakeholders and their rights will be represented including fishermen, industry, tourism, indigenous groups, and non-human species.

Is this actually working anywhere?

Yes. We are part of a worldwide and growing effort:

  • Municipalities in the U.S., including those in Pittsburgh and Santa Monica, have recently passed Rights of Nature laws to help protect their human and non-human communities.
  • Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico City now protect Rights of Nature in their constitutions.
  • Recent New Zealand treaty agreements declare a river, national park, and sacred mountain as legal entities with “all the rights of a legal person.”
  • Colombia declared both the Atrato River and Colombia Amazon as a “legal entity subject to basic rights.”

Want to know more about the Rights of Nature movement and how it will benefit our communities?

Earth Law for the Puget Sound and wider Salish Sea

Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature

Movement Rights