President Obama's poster fish for reform: the salmon

The president wants to reorganize the government's handling of fish in a way that, on the surface, would give science a larger voice. But would the Obama administration really let facts have priority over politics?

Crosscut archive image.

A Chinook salmon. (U.S. Geological Survey)

The president wants to reorganize the government's handling of fish in a way that, on the surface, would give science a larger voice. But would the Obama administration really let facts have priority over politics?

Salmon are still President Obama's poster children — OK, poster fish — for government illogic and inefficiency. He mentioned them in his State of the Union address last January and this January (on Friday the 13th), when he proposed reorganizing parts of the federal government, he noted that “the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater." He said this was his “favorite example” of government duplication. (No fish of any kind swam through this year's State of the Union on Jan. 24.)

His solution — which requires Congressional approval, a scenario some people consider unlikely — is to put much of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, into the Interior Department. If that happened, a single cabinet department would have jurisdiction over salmon wherever they went. Some fish advocates think this would be a good thing.

"It's horribly and painfully obvious that no Secretary of Commerce and no one who would ever be chosen as Secretary of Commerce would know a lot about wild animals or their habitat," says Dr. Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and The Eye of the Albatross, a former National Audubon Society vice-president who is currently president of the Blue Ocean Institute. Under Commerce Department oversight, Safina says, "fish populations have generally wound up being depleted and the agency's basic attitude has always been that their main job was to help fishermen find, develop and exploit more and more distant resources."

Some Northwestern salmon advocates were at least guardedly encouraged when former Washington governor Gary Locke, currently the U.S. Ambassador to China (a post in which he succeeded Jon Huntsman), became Obama's first Secretary of Commerce. Ditto when Oregon State University marine ecologist Jane Lubchenko became NOAA's administrator. Their optimism didn't last. They soon found that even under Locke and Lubchenko, the National Marine Fisheries Service clung to the Bush administration's biological opinion for operation of the federal Columbia River system dams. The Bush approach argued Snake River salmon would do just fine with the government's vague plans to improve their habitat, without even considering a breach of the four lower Snake River dams.

In rejecting the latest biological opinion last summer, — the fourth time a Columbia River BiOp had been rejected by a federal court — U.S. District Judge James Redden found "NOAA Fisheries' 'no jeopardy' conclusion arbitrary and capricious, at least as it extends beyond 2013." The feds were attributing specific survival benefits to habitat improvements that had not even been identified. Not surprisingly, Redden expressed "serious concerns about the specific numerical survival benefits NOAA Fisheries attributes to habitat mitigation."

He also expressed his frustration with NMFS's manipulation of "science" to reach politically determined ends. "Although the court may be required to defer to NOAA Fisheries' technical and scientific 'expertise' in predicting the benefits of habitat mitigation," he wrote, "the court is not required to defer to uncertain survival predictions that are based upon unidentified mitigation plans."

No one has really doubted that the agency felt pressure from the Northwest Congressional delegation to reach the conclusions it did. Would that change if it were moved to the Interior Department? The move is "the right idea," Safina says, "but I just don't think that [a commitment to science is] where the department is right now. ... Science is really pretty under-rated in Interior."

Remember former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald? At the end of 2008, Interior's Inspector General concluded, “MacDonald's zeal to advance her agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity of the [Endangered Species Act] program and to the morale and reputation of the [Fish and Wildlife Service], as well as potential harm to individual species. Her heavy-handedness has cast doubt on nearly every ESA decision issued during her tenure.”

And she wasn't acting alone. “MacDonald's conduct was backed by the seemingly blind support of former Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Judge Craig Manson. ... MacDonald was also ably abetted in her attempts to interfere with the science by Special Assistant Randal Bowman, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, who held the position and authority to advance the unwritten policy to exclude as many areas as practicable from Critical Habitat Determinations."

That all lies in the past, of course, but it's the recent past — and the political pressures that encouraged such behavior haven't gone away. It's the kind of thing that makes Safina and others less sanguine than they might be about putting NOAA into Interior.

Safina recalls that "my initial excitement" about the move "was dampened by the sort of 'out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire' perspective" he has since gained by talking to other people. Bottom line: "I like the idea . . . but I'm not really in favor of it as the department is now."

What would he prefer? "What would really be better for NOAA," Safina says, "would be to get it out of Commerce and elevate it to a cabinet level." Then, "the better thing would be to bring the [National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service into NOAA," which would "sort of rescue them, a bit, from the politics of Interior. That rearrangement would "keep the integrated idea of science and land and atmosphere together."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.