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Obama's salmon joke: Funny, only partially true

Drawing of male freshwater phase Sockeye (red) salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)

Drawing of male freshwater phase Sockeye (red) salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)

Did anyone else’s ears perk up when Obama called out federal salmon management as his favorite example of government inefficiency?

I checked PolitiFact last night to see if maybe they picked up on the misstatement of who’s actually in charge of salmon. Obama said the Department of Commerce is in charge of salmon in saltwater while the Interior Department is in charge of them when they’re in freshwater.

That’s never quite been the case in my experience. The National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Department of Commerce, has always taken the lead on salmon management in the Northwest.

NPR reports Damien Schiff from Pacific Legal Foundation saying, in fact, NMFS is legally in charge of protecting salmon from the gravel to the ocean. The Department of Commerce explicitly has legal jurisdiction over salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with NMFS in restoring freshwater salmon habitat and operating salmon hatcheries, which offset the impacts of dams and bolster salmon fisheries. But they aren’t really in charge. Not on the West Coast, anyway. Unless you’re talking about kokanee – the land-locked salmon.

As NPR reported, it was tricky to get anyone at an agency to correct the president outright. The Department of the Interior sent me this statement on the matter:

The Department of Commerce is responsible for salmon fisheries while the Interior Department operates salmon hatcheries in fresh water and addresses salmon habitat issues along freshwater streams. Under the Obama administration, the Departments are integrating efforts and working together to effectively and efficiently protect these important species.”

Joan Jewett, a spokewoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the president’s statement is more true in New England, where NMFS controls fisheries in saltwater and the USFWS takes over once the fish get inland and into fresh water. And even in the Northwest, Jewett said, there are some overlaps in responsibility and jurisdiction between the two departments.

So, I think the spirit of the president’s joke can endure, even if the facts don’t exactly add up. Federal salmon management is complex, involving multiple agencies, as Obama suggests with his punchline: “and I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

Is the president suggesting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service should merge to make salmon management more efficient? Some say that would be more trouble than it’s worth.

Salmon State of the Union

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