Obama's salmon quip: Is salmon management a joke?

Jan 27, 2011

In President Obama’s State of the Union speech, he got the biggest laugh of the night when – to illustrate the need to simplify government – he made a crack about salmon management.

"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 ... I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

See it here, along with a shot of Commerce Secretary (and former Washington Governor) Gary Locke trying to be a good sport.

The line was a hit on the internet, as well. The Twitterverse immediately lit up, with thousands of tweets on #salmon.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Tweeters from Michael Moore to Keith Olberman weighed in on Obama’s crack. Groups from BC Aquaculture to Earthjustice also used the occasion to flame each other about salmon policy.

In one of the more clever turns, Tweeter raoulduck quipped: “When Obama spoke before Congress last night, he put a lox on both their houses.”

But is salmon management in the Pacific Northwest really a good example of inefficient, wasteful government?

Actually, the effort to save and restore the iconic fish is even more complicated than the president said. Yes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – part of the Department of the Interior – does deal with salmon in their freshwater habitat, including operating hatcheries. And the National Marine Fisheries Service – under the Department of Commerce – does oversee salmon in the oceans, though, as part of the fishes' Endangered Species Act listings, it manages a lot of inland functions, too.

But there are also dozens of state, local and tribal agencies that have a finger in the salmon management pie. And across the border in Canada, they’ve got even more.

So, where does all this complexity come from?

Dave Montgomery says there’s actually a good reason: because salmon have a complicated life cycle.

Montgomery is a professor at the University of Washington and author of King of Fish: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon. He says the fish’s epic journey from mountains to the sea and back means putting salmon management under one roof would be a huge challenge.

“You’d have to have an agency whose jurisdiction went from the headwaters of a river system, to Japan. I mean, out across the Pacific Ocean, to be able to actually manage all aspects of the salmon’s life history across that tremendous geography.”

Montgomery says that, if you’re serious about keeping salmon from extinction, you could even make the case that salmon management isn’t complicated enough. Habitat loss due to land use is a large part of why salmon are threatened, and the federal government has little jurisdiction there.

There may well be room for streamlining our efforts to restore salmon, Mongomery says. But, ultimately, he says,

“I think that this case makes a better joke than an argument.”

Bottom line?

The next time the president wants to use an example of comically-overcomplicated government, he might do better to pick a simpler fish.