Expert to Obama: You don’t understand salmon

Note to President Obama and his staff: Learn a bit of fish biology before mocking the federal government for how it handles salmon.

As the White House unveiled its new government reorganization plan with much fanfare Friday, Obama couldn’t help mentioning that in moving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from Commerce to the Interior Department, he was putting all salmon issues under one roof.

Obama referred to what he said was his “favorite example” of government duplication, mentioned in his most recent State of the Union address. “As it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater. Apparently, this all had something to do with President Nixon being unhappy with his Interior secretary for criticizing the Vietnam War.”

He added: “No business or nonprofit leader would allow this kind of duplication or unnecessary complexity in their operations. . . . So why is it okay for our government? It’s not. It has to change.”

The problem with his critique is that there are not separate fresh water and saltwater salmon. Salmon spend part of their lives in fresh water and part in the sea, which is why federal jurisdiction is divided.

A White House official declared that “fresh and saltwater salmon will be together” under the new reorganization. “It’s good news for salmon,” Jeff Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said in response to a question.

Carl Safina, a professor at Stony Brook University and president of the Blue Ocean Institute, provided a gentle lesson for the administration in salmon’s life history in an e-mail, even as he praised the reorganization efforts.

“For two decades, we’ve been saying that no Commerce secretary will ever understand fish. Natural resources are supposed to be managed in Interior. So, bravo!” Safina wrote. “But the administration people could use one quick lesson about salmon swimmin’: Rivers go to the sea. Salmon go upstream for sex and then their babies go downstream for adventure; they go up gravid, and gravity brings them down and out to sea. It’s called a run, but actually they swim. It’s connected. Simple enough, right?”

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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