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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan January 26, 2011

Obama says the one department regulates salmon in freshwater and another regulates them in saltwater

One of President Barack Obama's big laugh lines from his State of the Union address came when he talked about fish: salmon, to be specific. Obama's set-up was a call for efficient government.

"We shouldn't just give our people a government that's more affordable. We should give them a government that's more competent and more efficient. We can't win the future with a government of the past," Obama said. "We live and do business in the Information Age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV. There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."

We didn't much doubt the example. (We'll note again that White House speech writers have weeks to research and write the address.) But it did make us curious. So we decided to check the facts behind salmon swimming across regulatory lines.

And swim they do: Most salmon are born in rivers and streams, then swim out to the ocean to become adults. Once they're full-grown, they return to the rivers and streams to breed. The technical term for this is "anadromous."

When fish are out in the ocean, they're regulated by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which "predicts the status of fish stocks, ensures compliance with fisheries regulations and works to reduce wasteful fishing practices," according to its website. The service is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is, as Obama said, part of the U.S. Commerce Department.

When fish are in the rivers and streams, they're regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which focuses on the conservation and protection of fish and wildlife and their habitats. The Fish and Wildlife Service is indeed part of the Department of Interior.

When the fish is smoked, it would generally be regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates most packaged foods.

Obama might even have been underselling the complexity. A major effort in the Pacific Northwest to protect and conserve salmon in the Columbia River Basin involves a "federal caucus" of 10 agencies working together for that purpose, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey, to name a few.

And while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims jurisdiction over salmon, freshwater fishing is also regulated heavily by state agencies.

"It is a stretch to say that salmon in freshwater are regulated by the Interior Department," said Ray Hilborn, a professor at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. "Harvest in freshwater is almost totally regulated by states, and in some case tribes," he said in an e-mail. "In salt water the ocean harvest beyond 3 miles is federally regulated, but almost all the catch in the U.S. takes place in Alaska, and the state of Alaska regulates that fishery."

"In reality, most of the things that affect salmon in freshwater are managed by dozens of agencies," he added.

A conservationist we spoke with said that more agencies doesn't necessarily mean more inefficiency. "It can cut both ways. In a good sense, it can bring more resources," said Andrew Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a group that works to protect wild salmon. "It can get bogged down if the agencies have different ideas on how the species should be managed."

Finally, a spokesman with the National Fisheries Institute, which represents commercial fishers, said salmon isn't even the half of it when it comes to overlapping rules. "There's more where that came from, unfortunately, when it comes to seafood," said Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the group. His group is particularly critical of a provision included in the 2008 farm legislation that allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate catfish. Not all fish, just catfish. He called those rules a "a demonstrable special interest effort." American catfish farmers asked for the new rules; they say foreign fish farmers are selling inferior products in the U.S.

Gibbons praised the National Marine Fisheries Service, though, for its work conserving fish stocks. "They're not perfect, and there are controversies about catch shares and limits and that sort of thing," he said. "But broadly speaking, they're a world-class organization in terms of sustainability"

In ruling on Obama's statement, we found that he's right about the regulatory division on salmon, with different agencies responsible for the fish when they're in freshwater versus when they're in saltwater. In fact, he leaves out a lot of detail, including the role of the states. The actual regulatory scene is even more complicated. But Fish and Wildlife in the Interior Department does have authority over fish when they're in freshwater, and the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Department of Commerce regulates them in saltwater. Because he left out some of the complexity, we rate his statement Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources, Federal Caucus Agencies, accessed Jan. 26, 2011

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Salmon of the West: Who is in charge?, accessed Jan. 26, 2011

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, FWS at a glance, accessed Jan. 26, 2011

About National Marine Fisheries Service, accessed Jan. 26, 2011

A, Salmon Populations, accessed Jan. 26, 2011

Interview with Gavin Gibbons, the National Fisheries Institute

E-mail interview with Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington

Interview with Chris Boatright of the University of Washington

Interview with Andrew Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation

The Orlando Sentinel, U.S. catfish farmers push for USDA to enforce safe fish law, Oct. 4, 2010

Marketplace, Government squishy on catfish inspections, May 12, 2010

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Obama says the one department regulates salmon in freshwater and another regulates them in saltwater

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