In his State of the Union speech to Congress Tuesday night, President Obama suggested that reducing inefficient federal bureaucracy can help reduce federal spending and promote economic growth. Stretching to find a lighthearted example of government ineptness, the President quipped that “the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."
This remark may have elicited chuckles in the Capitol building, but really it's not so funny for the parts of the country where salmon conservation raises significant environmental and economic issues.
Critics have rightly jumped on the line (see Earthjustice, Slate). First, the President got his bureaucratic story mostly wrong. On the west coast, Pacific salmon are under the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – an agency within the Department of Commerce – regardless of whether they are in the ocean as adults, or struggling to pass safely upriver through a gauntlet of federal dams to reach their spawning grounds (the more lethal trip, actually, is typically when young fish must try to avoid the dams' turbines on their way downriver to the ocean). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages some hatcheries designed to mitigate for habitat damage caused by the federal dams, but unfortunately hatcheries can themselves contribute to the threats faced by wild salmon runs.
On the east coast, NOAA and FWS share responsibility for managing Atlantic salmon; the two agencies worked out this arrangement when the few remaining salmon runs on the eastern seaboard declined to the extent that they were listed under the Endangered Species Act. Salmon in the East thus joined their Pacific cousins on the rolls of threatened and endangered species; since the early 1990s, NOAA has placed many of the West’s remaining salmon runs outside Alaska on the ESA’s protected lists, and the federal government, states, and tribes are spending millions of dollars on efforts to restore these fish.
Actually, salmon provide an unfortunate example of the Obama Administration not taking very seriously the President’s pledge to restore science to a prominent role in federal decision-making. In the Columbia River Basin, for example, Obama and Dr. Jane Lubchenco – the highly regarded marine scientist appointed to run NOAA – heaped praise on the salmon restoration plan written by the Bush Administration, a strategy that does much more to protect Columbia hydropower, navigation, and irrigation interests than it does to restore salmon. NOAA’s salmon policy has been challenged in federal court by a coalition of environmental organizations, the State of Oregon, and the Nez Perce tribe. Salmon recovery advocates are also fighting a long-running battle with NOAA over the federal government’s anemic efforts to restore salmon in the Sacramento River system.
And yes, smoked salmon is indeed tasty. But these days the smoked salmon many people eat comes from farmed fish whose flesh is literally dyed a reddish color, since their artificial food gives the meat a bland whitish hue. Farmed salmon also sometimes escape their pens and become yet another threat to depleted wild salmon runs. And soon these mass-produced fish may even sport designer genes – the FDA is poised to approve the sale of genetically modified salmon without any labels identifying them as such. Critics have called for closer regulation of these “frankenfish.”
So the President was probably correct to point out salmon as providing a good example of the federal bureaucracy’s shortcomings. But it turns out those shortcomings really aren’t a laughing matter.