Salish Sea Diet

A few years ago Penelakut elder Florence James kindly arranged to have an original Cowichan sweater knitted for me. I cherish that sweater because it is an original First Nations garment unique to the Salish Sea but sadly, the art of sweater knitting on Penelakut is disappearing and with it, a cultural connection to the Salish Sea. The loss of sweater making is part of a wider concern of the loss of nature in our lives.

The disconnect with nature has not gone unnoticed and some people have decided to do something about it. Two years ago, Mayne and Galiano Islands launched an annual Active Pass Festival to showcase the natural world that surrounds them. I was honoured to be the keynote speaker at the first festival on both islands where I presented the concept of Nature Culture. Daniel Kirkpatrick and Andrew Simon from Galiano wanted to develop the concept and so together we planned an evening event of food and discussion at a community level. Daniel and Andrew invited Florence and me to speak.

Florence spoke about her early life on Galiano Island, food, stories and the uses of the sea and land to First Nations culture. I addressed the importance of reconnecting to nature using food and architecture as examples of establishing a sustainable culture rooted in nature.

The importance of food in culture is well known. One popular example is the Mediterranean Diet that recently received World Heritage Designation. The Designation identified the sustainability of food products, livelihoods and the land, which incidentally is also an element of Nature Culture. The central ingredients of a Mediterranean Diet are olive oil, legumes, fruits, vegetables and whole grain cereals, along with small portions of dairy products, wine and meats. During my presentation, I challenged the crowd to help me define a Salish Sea Diet.

First up was food from the sea itself.  Seafood, especially salmon, was an obvious key ingredient. The Pacific Coast of Canada has several species of salmon and they are an important element of First Nations culture. Shellfish was also discussed since their is a history of clams in the diet of First Nations people that is millennia-old and there is a modern shellfish industry along the coast. The revival of clam gardening by First Nations in collaboration with others offers a chance to support rejuvenation of an ancient harvesting method. Among vegetables, root crops such as potatoes, parsnips and carrots, and leafy vegetables grown in the soils surrounding the Salish Sea, could be included in the Salish Sea Diet. Berries such as cranberries, blueberries, and salal berries might be added as fresh ingredients, as preserves, and in wine and juices. Seaweed might be used to infuse the food or as a garnish. Other foods and cooking methods could enhance and innovate this basic diet as long as they promoted the Nature Culture principles of sustainable of foods, livelihoods and the land and sea origins.

An important aspect in establishing a Salish Sea Diet is to popularize it.  A cook book would be a start where names such as Comox Clam Chowder or Salish Sea Salmon could be described. A celebrity chef might like to take the lead to explore the new cuisine and cooking methods. A feast of the new cuisine could become a summer event to showcase the sustainable products of the Salish Sea. I have a sense that this might just be the start of a something new and vibrant.


About rob butler

I am a scientist, author and naturalist with over four decades of field study of wild animals. You can read more at my web site at
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