But Seriously, Mr. President, About Those Salmon …

Glen MacLarty via Wikimedia Commons

In his State of the Union speech last night, President Barack Obama got some laughs while talking about the need for reorganizing government to make it more efficient. From the White House transcript:

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 saltwater. (Laughter.) I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked. (Laughter and applause.)

The joke was a bit unfair: Experts in salmon management say that shuffling federal agencies isn't the best way to help salmon. And the punchline touches on an important issue in food safety.

Salmon are managed by two agencies for an obvious reason: they are born in streams, grow up in the ocean, and return to streams to reproduce. While salmon are at sea, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for them. On land, the job is the legal mandate of the Department of the Interior 's Fish and Wildlife Service. So here's where Obama's example falls apart: In practice, FWS has delegated most responsibilities to NOAA, so there haven't been any management problems stemming from the split federal jurisdiction, says Rich Lincoln, of the Wild Salmon Center, a non-profit group based in Portland, Oregon.

It's not clear to Lincoln that reorganizing NOAA and FWS to better handle salmon would even increase administrative efficiencies. "It could lead to a larger, more bureaucratic agency," he says. "It's really hard to say." Lincoln says that protecting habitat and addressing hatcheries would be more effective ways to help salmon. Syma Ebbin of the University of Connecticut, Avery Point, adds that communication and coordination between agencies can go a long way toward effectively managing species that cross political boundaries. "If we can meet that challenge, it will make our management much more resilient."

As for the complications of smoked salmon, Obama may have been referring to food safety. Regulatory authority over food is split between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and advocates have argued that a reorganization of federal agencies would improve the safety of the food supply. For a sense of how fractured the system is, consider that FDA regulates sandwiches, but USDA handles open-faced sandwiches. (Not to harp on the joke, but smoked salmon, like all fish, is actually straightforward and covered solely by FDA.)

It's hard to know whether Obama will include food safety in his "proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America" that he mentioned last night. But even if he does, says Marion Nestle of New York University, it's not likely that Congress will approve it; much of the food industry opposes more regulation, she says.