Obama's Salmon Quip: The Truth Is Murky

President Obama's joke notwithstanding, a Commerce Department agency has the prime responsibility to protect  salmon when they're in the ocean and when they swim upriver to spawn. i i

hide captionPresident Obama's joke notwithstanding, a Commerce Department agency has the prime responsibility to protect salmon when they're in the ocean and when they swim upriver to spawn.

Gary Stewart/AP
President Obama's joke notwithstanding, a Commerce Department agency has the prime responsibility to protect  salmon when they're in the ocean and when they swim upriver to spawn.

President Obama's joke notwithstanding, a Commerce Department agency has the prime responsibility to protect salmon when they're in the ocean and when they swim upriver to spawn.

Gary Stewart/AP

The one thing everyone seems to remember from President Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday is the salmon joke.

"The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," he said. "And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

But the truth may be getting in the way of a good joke.

It's hard to find anyone more eager to reduce government bureaucracy than Damien Schiff, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation.

"It's nice that the president has at least in a laugh line recognized the threats to our economy from overregulation, especially redundant environmental regulation," Schiff said. "But it seems that the president may have been a little misinformed."

Schiff says, in fact, the same agency has the prime responsibility to protect salmon both when they're in the ocean and when they swim upriver to spawn: the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

No official from that agency was willing to correct the president on tape; nor was anyone from the Interior Department. But the departments put out a statement clarifying their roles.

The Interior Department restores inland habitat for salmon that spend most of their lives in the ocean. It also operates hatcheries in freshwater. But some salmon live only in freshwater, and the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for them.

The statement also stresses that the departments work together effectively and efficiently to protect salmon.

Jamie Rappaport, who headed the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Clinton administration, says she thinks the president singled out the wrong example.

"He was talking, of course, about trying to reduce government overlap and agency duplication," she said. "But salmon is a good example of agency coordination rather than agency duplication."

It is true that Commerce and Interior share responsibility for protecting endangered species. But in most cases, one department is in charge of a particular species. There is at least one exception: sea turtles. Commerce protects them in the open sea and Interior oversees their nests on shore. But picking on sea turtles after they suffered so much in the BP oil spill probably would not have gotten a laugh.

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