No one can blame President Barack Obama for trying to add a little levity to his State of the Union address, which, by most accounts, was short of compelling or inspirational.
Obama cracked a joke on the touchy topic of salmon management, something near and dear to the hearts of Pacific Northwesterners.
Sorry, but the president missed the mark. His short little aside about what he perceives to be overlapping and excessive bureaucracy when it comes to managing the region’s iconic fish wasn’t even accurate.
For those who missed it, here’s what Obama had to say. Or better yet, here’s what a speech writer wrote for Obama to say:
“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they are in saltwater,” he said. “And I hear it gets even more complicated once they are smoked.”
The joke triggered more groans than laughs, especially from people immersed in the incredibly difficult task of bringing imperiled salmon stocks back from the brink of extinction.
If the truth be known, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and also known as NOAA Fisheries, is the primary agency responsible for salmon when they are in the ocean or in their native rivers and streams.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which is an agency within the Interior Department, does have authority over a wide variety of endangered and threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, but not salmon – that’s NOAA Fisheries’ responsibility.
That’s not to say there aren’t a vast array of players in the world of salmon management and salmon recovery.
The states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California all have fish and wildlife departments that have a role in setting salmon fishing seasons and managing salmon.
There are a number of Western Washington treaty tribes that are co-managers of the salmon, an authority dating back to treaties signed more than 150 years ago.
There is a U.S.-Canada Salmon Interception Treaty, a salmon management framework that’s necessary because salmon swim freely in the Pacific Ocean, unwittingly moving across international boundaries in search of food.
Things get really complicated when the fish come home to spawn. They journey into estuaries, rivers and streams where they collide head-on with habitat loss and pollution caused by population growth and development. Suddenly a whole host of land-use and environmental regulations controlled by cities, counties and state agencies can make or break the health of salmon.
Farther upstream, farmers, private timberland companies, the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service, which is an arm of the federal Department of Agriculture, manage millions of acres of fields and forests in ways that can help or harm salmon.
On the big rivers that mighty king salmon call home, there are dams controlled by public and private utilities that continue to influence salmon populations.
Let’s not forget the multiple user groups, including recreational and commercial fishers, environmentalists, industrialists and others who all have a stake in the salmon management game.
It’s a confusing, complex and costly job to try to maintain the healthy salmon runs and restore the ones that have fallen victim to habitat loss, dams, overharvest and hatchery mismanagement.
The reorganization of salmon management that Obama alluded to in his State of the Union address isn’t going to happen. There are too many players and too much history to start from scratch.
Is there room for improvement in salmon management and salmon recovery efforts? Absolutely, especially when it comes to ensuring that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on salmon recovery is allocated wisely.
But what Obama called his favorite example of the need to streamline government wasn’t a very good example at all.