Who’s in Charge of Salmon?

Posted Feb. 02, 2011, at 4:28 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 02, 2011, at 4:46 p.m.

In his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama pledged to make the federal government smaller and more efficient. To illustrate the need for this work, he highlighted a situation familiar to many Mainers.

“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon when they’re in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked,” the president said to laughter.

The quip was dutifully torn apart within hours. Earth Justice, an environmental group that advocates for protecting salmon, said technically the Commerce Department, and its National Marine Fisheries Service, is in charge of salmon at the federal level. The Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just oversees hatcheries, the group said.

What’s the big deal? asked Greg Pollowitz at the conservative National Review Online. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates dams and dams are what are bad for salmon, he wrote.

A better example of regulatory nonsense, he wrote, is the story of the Agriculture Department being responsible for frozen pepperoni pizza, while the Food and Drug Administration handled the plain cheese variety.

Slate.com answered the president’s lingering question: The Agriculture Department is responsible the production and labeling of smoked salmon. But, the Food and Drug Administration, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, also plays a role in labeling. A subset of the agency, the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee is currently considering how to handle genetically modified salmon.

Whether the president’s salmon example was fully accurate or not misses the larger point. The fact that there are myriad federal agencies overseeing salmon — or construction projects, energy development, the building of a dock or your pick of projects that the government is blamed for blocking or slowing down — drives the public crazy. They see this as a tangled web of government regulation that stifles businesses.

Likewise with Gov. Paul LePage’s red tape audit meetings and the Legislature’s Regulatory Fairness and Reform Committee. Business owners don’t want to hear why numerous agencies should have a say about whether and how a project should proceed. They just want a yes or no answer, or better some help turning a no into a yes.

The challenge for the governor and president is to turn the public anger and quippy sound-bites into policy. Mocking federal oversight of salmon is easy. Changing government bureaucracy is not, but President Obama and Gov. LePage are right to focus their efforts here.

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