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.