Obama's speech rankles northwest salmon supporters
January 31, 2011
While many laughed at the president's comic reference to salmon in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, many of those familiar with the troubled seagoing species applauded, and then groaned.
During a portion of the speech dedicated to reorganizing government, Obama highlighted what sounded like government redundancies. He mentioned that 12 federal agencies deal with exports and five "entities" deal with housing.
And he followed those statements with this: "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 when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."
The line was a hit -- perhaps too big a hit. When National Public Radio after the speech asked 4,000 listeners to describe in three words what they recalled from the president's hour-long address, the most frequently mentioned word was "salmon."
But Obama's description wasn't even entirely accurate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency within Interior, manages most endangered species and owns and operates nine hatcheries in Washington. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, an agency within Commerce, runs virtually every aspect of salmon management regardless of whether they're at sea or in a river.
And if the president's point was that salmon involves more than one agency, he really missed the mark.
In truth, it's way more Byzantine than that.
"I don't think you could make a more complicated system if you tried," said Bruce Sanford, a retired Washington state chinook salmon biologist.
NOAA Fisheries is responsible for recovering salmon under the Endangered Species Act, but the Washington state Fish and Wildlife Department manages fishing in state waters.
There are 17 tribes just in the Puget Sound region with rights to half the catch, and several more once you get to the Columbia River.
Salmon are also dramatically affected by water levels and dams, which are run by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide electricity for the Bonneville Power Administration -- except of course when they're run by the city of Seattle or another agency altogether.
And salmon need cold, clear, flowing streams to survive.
That's why state forest managers and the U.S. Forest Service in the past few decades have had to change logging practices -- and why forest road crews and state and federal transportation agencies are under pressure to widen culverts.
And that's not to mention international negotiations with Canada.
Obama's comments opened his administration to easy criticism.
"Streamlining is fine," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice. "But stream protection is what we really need."
Fishing groups cheered the mention of salmon -- then used the opportunity to urge the president to tackle "the real source of government inefficiency: politics trumping science."
It's clear what Obama was really trying to say: "He used the way salmon are overseen by the government as an example of how jurisdictions can overlap," said Kenneth Baer, head of communications for White House Office of Management and Budget.
Even so, no one at this point expects a wholesale reorganization of salmon-agency jurisdiction.
David Montgomery, for one, thinks that's probably good.
"It makes for a better joke than it does an idea," said the University of Washington professor who explored the complexities of saving salmon in his award-winning 2003 book "King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon."
"It really does sound silly that we have all these different jurisdictions, but the basic problem is salmon don't stay put," he said.
Combining salmon management into fewer agencies wouldn't change the fact that on their journey from gravelly riverbeds to the ocean and back, the fish are affected by everything from climate to logging to housing development, roads, fishing and pollution.
"That still requires different science and expertise and policies that are hard to make line up in ways that don't undercut each other," he said. "But none of that means fewer people."
E-mail reporter Craig Welch at cwelch(at)seattletimes.com
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