State of the Union: NOAA addresses salmon joke a year later

January 24, 2012

At last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama’s most memorable line was not about education, or innovation or winning the future. No, the word that captured the country’s attention was: salmon.


NPR listeners described President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in three words. This is a word cloud of the more than 12,000 words received. (Wordle via NPR.com)

Standing before Congress in 2011, the president gave his “favorite example” of how messy the government can be. “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water,” Obama said. “I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

Obama reprised the joke on Jan. 13 when he announced his plan to reorganize the federal government, suggesting that salmon epitomized one of the reasons the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deserved to be in the Interior Department rather than Commerce.

Now NOAA has issued a document titled “Who Manages Salmon,” which attempts to show that salmon management isn’t as schizophrenic as Obama’s comments imply.

NOAA says in a statement that it provides most of the federal oversight of salmon, regardless of whether the fish is in salt water or fresh. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)--which is part of the Interior Department--offers some federal help in certain regions. Responsibility does not flip as soon as a fish swims its way upstream.


President Obama speaks during his 2011 State of the Union address. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

On the West Coast, NOAA works with state and tribal governments, as well as international fishery organizations. On the East Coast, NOAA shares responsibility for rebuilding the Atlantic salmon population with the Fish and Wildlife Service and individual states.

Then there are landlocked salmon--the fish that have been introduced to water bodies such as the Great Lakes. “Responsibilities for these fish are primarily with the states within which they reside, with the limited federal role allocated to the” Fish and Wildlife Service, the NOAA document says.

But wait, there’s more. “Finally, there are extensive salmon hatchery programs funded or administered by NOAA, the FWS and several other federal agencies, by numerous state and tribal fishery agencies, and by private industry,” NOAA explains. “These hatcheries are in Alaska, the Great Lakes, across the West Coast states and to a lesser extent in New England.”

Whether this explanation signals the end of presidential quips at the expense of this anadromous fish--or whether it gives Obama more fuel for his complaints about government bureaucracy--is anyone’s guess. We’ll have to watch Tuesday night’s speech to find out if salmon makes a repeat appearance.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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