STATE OF THE UNION:

Obama quip on salmon oversight fails to amuse Earthjustice

President Obama's attempt last night to mix the lighter side of protecting endangered salmon in his State of The Union address was lost on an environmental group that said the president got the punch line wrong.

The salmon line in Obama's speech -- poking fun at bureaucratic layers of regulation associated with salmon protection -- drew tepid laughter from assembled members of the House and Senate.

"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, trying to make a point about streamlining federal regulation. "And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

But Earthjustice is taking issue with that line, saying the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) exclusively runs the show when it comes to federal oversight of salmon. Involvement by Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service is limited to managing salmon hatcheries, the group argues in a statement, adding that FWS participation is only necessary because of the need "to mitigate for the damage we've done to the rivers, streams and creeks where salmon spawn."

"Salmon spend part of their lives in the ocean and part in the freshwater rivers and streams that flow through the states," said Todd True, an attorney in Earthjustice's Seattle office.

True added that Earthjustice agrees with the need to streamline oversight but argued the best means to accomplish that "would be to make sure the money we spend to restore salmon is guided by the best science and the best scientists."

"Right now, salmon are in trouble up and down the West Coast because political science has trumped biological science," True said. "All of the government agencies are too focused on protecting powerful economic interests instead of taking the steps we need to take to bring salmon back."

Earthjustice has been heavily involved in litigation over endangered salmon and delta smelt in California's Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The group suffered a loss in court in December when a federal judge threw out a scientific study that forms the basis for protecting the smelt in the sprawling delta (Greenwire, Dec. 15, 2010).

Earthjustice spokesman John McManus said the statement was issued in hopes that the streamlining proposal is a serious policy idea from the White House.

"As to which federal agency oversees smoked salmon, like the president, I'm in the dark too," McManus said.

Christopher Carr, attorney for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said a dustup over the joke obscures an imporant issue about salmon protection.

"It's true that the President didn't get it quite right, but his point is undeniable: fractured and overlapping jurisdiction over species doesn't make much sense either from a biological or a management perspective," Carr said in an e-mail. "It's also true that West Coast salmon are in trouble, but environmental organizations need to start taking a hard look at the impacts of ocean harvest on those salmon and not just terrestrial and freshwater impacts. And, to fulfill its mandate to use the best available science, NMFS needs to use analytical tools that lets the data do the talking, even if it ends up pointing to impacts from favored industries."

Sullivan is based in San Francisco.