President’s salmon joke fails to connect with reality

UPDATE, Jan. 27:
Since I first posted this item, Scott Veirs pointed out that the recovery of Atlantic salmon is under the joint jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. I was not aware of this, and it could help explain the president’s statement. Thanks, Scott. See below for Scott’s comment and my response.

President Obama made a joke about salmon in his “State of the Union” speech last night, but his statement didn’t ring true to me, so I did some checking.

President Obama delivers State of the Union.White House photo

Obama used salmon as an example of redundancy in government and the need for reorganization. His point was valid about how a confusing number of agencies are involved in salmon and their habitat, But I’m afraid he’s mistaken about who’s in charge when it comes to these migrating fish. Here’s his statement:

“… Then there’s my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water (laughter). I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked (laughter and applause).“

The truth is the National Marine Fisheries Service is in charge of most salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, no matter where they are. NMFS, of course, is an agency under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is under the Department of Commerce.

Humpback salmon, also known as pink. NOAA's Historic Fisheries Collection

The Columbia River is a big body of freshwater, but NMFS is the agency that reviews the recovery plans for listed salmon. The agency also is in charge of all fish that spend their entire lives in salt water. The list of protected fish managed by NMFS can be found on a webpage of the Office of Protected Resources.

In contrast, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Department of Interior, is in charge of fish that generally spend their entire lives in freshwater.

As for the president’s point about a confusing number of agencies being involved in salmon restoration, there are no fewer than 10 federal agencies involved in the effort to restore salmon on the Columbia River. Together, they are called the Federal Caucus, and their roles are outlined on the Salmon Recovery website.

Before leaving this mundane subject, I have to call attention to a news release sent out this afternoon by Earthjustice attorneys Todd True and Kristen Boyles, who could not resist using the president’s confusion about jurisdictions to register their own views about salmon recovery.

Said True:

“Earthjustice agrees with the President’s inclination to streamline federal salmon oversight. The best way to do this would be to make sure the money we spend to restore salmon is guided by the best science and the best scientists. Right now, salmon are in trouble up and down the West Coast because political science has trumped biological science. All of the government agencies are too focused on protecting powerful economic interests instead of taking the steps we need to take to bring salmon back and support the communities and people that depend on them.”

Said Boyles:

“Streamlining is fine, but stream protection is what we really need. All federal agencies need to follow the best science that protects and restores salmon habitat and clean water. That’s the way we’ll make sure our economy and environment don’t go up in smoke.”

That sounds like a vote for smoked salmon but a vote against a smoked environment.

6 thoughts on “President’s salmon joke fails to connect with reality

  1. Well, it was a joke, so we can allow for some inaccuracies. I suppose if Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin had said it, though, it would be blown up into a major political issue. Whatever.

    There is one reason the salmon are endangered and one reason only: they are being over-fished. You can blame everything else in the world, but unless we stop over-fishing the salmon are doomed.

  2. Yes, overfishing is a major reason for salmon decline, but even if another one were never caught, without streams appropriate for salmon spawning – clean, cold, gravel-bottomed, unobstructed by dams, and with complex pool-and-riffle topography, large woody debris, and the correct hydrology – they will be just as extinct as if they were fished into extinction. Both over-fishing and habitat destruction have to be curtailed for the salmon to survive.

  3. Well said, Chris. I appreciate your clarification of how Pacific salmon are managed.

    I wonder, though, if we’re being too Pacific-centric. Residing as he does on the East Coast, Obama may have been thinking of Atlantic salmon. My (minimal) understanding is that Atlantic salmon hatcheries are managed by Fish and Wildlife while the recovery of listed populations has been managed jointly by FWS and NOAA.

    One man’s invasive species is another man’s distinct population segment?

  4. Poor water policy is at fault. Water is taken out of a spawning rivers for other uses. We have to decide if we are going to use our rivers for salmon spawning, irragation or for city water, or some combination of the last 2.

    A few years ago in the Klamath river thousends of returning salmon died befor they could spawn becouse their wasn’t enough water. They did not die from overfishing.

  5. Scott, I think you’re right. Atlantic salmon appears to be an exception. The Office of Protected Resources link I listed above, states, “NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has jurisdiction over most marine and anadromous fish listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA),” then goes on to list them.

    The keyword is “most.” On the East Coast, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service apparently have joint jurisdiction for the recovery of Atlantic Salmon. This statement is from a 100-page Atlantic Salmon Recovery Framework (PDF 1.1 mb):

    “The life history of an anadromous species poses challenges for management requiring action in freshwater, adjacent riparian habitat, estuaries and marine waters near and offshore. Joint responsibility for the species between two federal agencies adds additional layers of complexity. Added to this has been a strained and, at times, litigious relationship with the State and affected industries. It is for all of these reasons that enhanced coordination, deliberate and advance planning, and monitoring is essential to the future of this species.”

    Thanks for calling this to my attention. I love learning new things, and this may have been what the president was talking about. On the other hand, it’s a pretty limited example, given the breadth of his statement about “salmon.” Still, his bigger point is certainly valid, since we have freshwater fish and saltwater fish of all kinds being managed by two entirely separate cabinet-level departments.

    Something similar can be said for the U.S. Forest Service, which is under the Department of Agriculture, as opposed to its cousin, the Bureau of Land Management, which is under the Department of Interior along with the National Park Service.

    It would only make sense to straighten all this out, but many others have tried and failed to break down the various fortresses of political domain.

    Thanks, Scott for bringing the joint management of Atlantic salmon to my attention.

  6. I have to throw in one more comment after reading reporter Craig Welch’s piece in the Seattle Times today. David Montgomery makes a good point about trying to reorganize federal agencies around the needs of salmon.

    “It makes for a better joke than it does an idea,” said the University of Washington professor and MacArthur Award recipient, who explored the complexities of saving salmon in his award-winning 2003 book “King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon.”

    “It really does sound silly that we have all these different jurisdictions, but the basic problem is salmon don’t stay put,” he said.

    Combining salmon management into fewer agencies wouldn’t change the fact that on their journey from gravelly riverbeds to the ocean and back, the fish are affected by everything from climate to logging to housing development, roads, fishing and pollution.

    “That still requires different science and expertise and policies that are hard to make line up in ways that don’t undercut each other,” he said. “But none of that means fewer people.”

    Still, if Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire thinks the state Department of Fish and Wildlife needs to be combined with other state agencies, think what fun she would have with the federal bureaucracy.

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