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State of the Salmon: SOTU Ref Elicits Cheers and Jeers

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Salmon conservationists lauded President Obama’s inclusion of “one of America’s most beloved creatures in an address watched by tens of millions” during his State of the Union speech, as the advocacy group Save Our Wild Salmon put it.

But they warned he must not flip-flop when it comes to including sound, scientific salmon management in his environmental strategy.

Obama was trying to highlight the need to streamline bureaucracy when he quipped, “Then there’s my favorite example: 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. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

The New York Timesreported “tepid laughter” from Senate and House audience members, while The Washington Post said “the congressional audience laughed heartily at the salmon joke.”

As far as environmentalists were concerned, he was a fish out of water. Salmon regulation is no joke, as Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, put it on the Huffington Post on Thursday. Although President Obama was correct in urging that the government stop working in the past, she said, his joke belied the fact that when it comes to salmon restoration efforts in the northwestern U.S., that’s exactly what is being done.

“The President's State of the Union salmon joke suggested that the problem with salmon recovery efforts is that there are too many agencies in the kitchen, but the real problem is that the current salmon plan is half-baked,” wrote Huta, whose group on Thursday requested endangered or threatened status for the Klamath River spring and fall chinook salmon. “The administration's plan for Columbia and Snake River salmon is based on policies of the past—Bush administration salmon policies to be exact—rather than identifying and making the changes necessary to actually restore these iconic creatures. The salmon plan ignores sound salmon science and instead relies on the status quo that is certainly failing.”

It’s the peripatetic nature of salmon, not inefficiency, that causes it to be regulated by two agencies, Slate writer Brian Palmer noted in a Jan. 26 “Explainer” column.

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Salmon, along with shad, eel and a few other species, cross the regulatory boundary during normal migration, Palmer said. It’s just that commercial operators hunt salmon exclusively in the ocean, and freshwater fish harvesting falls under the fisheries department because it relates to farmed fish, not wild.

The U.S. Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) actually does oversee wild salmon at the federal level, and the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) only steps in regarding salmon hatcheries, the nonprofit legal group Earthjustice told The New York Times’ GreenTech blog. And that’s just "to mitigate for the damage we've done to the rivers, streams and creeks where salmon spawn," Earthjustice said in a statement, according to the NYT story.

Thus, as the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition put it in a statement, “Salmon advocates up and down the Pacific Coast and across the country are urging President Obama to keep salmon recovery at the top of his to-do list in the coming year, but to turn his attention where it’s truly needed: science-driven salmon restoration efforts that protect fish, create jobs, safeguard communities, and save money.”

John McManus, a spokesman for Earthjustice, said the group had issued its statement in hopes that the streamlining part of Obama’s reference, at least, was no joke. When it came to smoked salmon, though, he had no more information than the President.

"As to which federal agency oversees smoked salmon, like the President, I'm in the dark too," McManus told The New York Times.

Was the laughter tepid or hearty? Listen for yourself.