Obama's Salmon Quip: The Truth Is Murky The president joked that the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in freshwater and the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater. But, in fact, a Commerce Department agency has the prime responsibility to protect salmon when they're in the ocean and when they swim upriver to spawn.

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Obama's Salmon Quip: The Truth Is Murky

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President Obama talked about a lot of things in his State of the Union speech, but the one thing everyone seems to remember is the salmon joke.

President BARACK OBAMA: Then there's my favorite example. The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, the truth may get in the way of a good joke.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: It's hard to find anyone more eager to reduce government bureaucracy than Damien Schiff. He fights regulations in court as a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Mr. DAMIEN SCHIFF (Attorney, 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. But it seems that the president may have been a little misinformed.

SHOGREN: 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 up rivers to spawn. That's the National Marine Fisheries Service. It's 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. The statement also stresses that the departments work together effectively and efficiently to protect salmon.

Jamie Rappaport headed the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Clinton administration. She also thinks the president singled out the wrong example.

Dr. JAMIE RAPPAPORT (Former Director, Fish and Wildlife Service): He was talking, of course, about trying to reduce government overlap and agency duplication. But salmon is a good example of agency coordination more than it is agency duplication.

SHOGREN: It is true that both 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.

Elizabeth Shogren. NPR News, Washington.

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