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Posted at 12:56 PM ET, 01/27/2011

What's the deal with salmon?

By Ezra Klein

Like many examples of governmental dysfunction, the way salmon are regulated makes more sense when you look at it closely than when you simplify it for a laugh line. The reason fishing for salmon in freshwater and fishing for salmon in saltwater get regulated by different agencies is that it's the water, not the salmon, being regulated. Brian Palmer explains:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of the Interior, has jurisdiction over fishermen working in inland bodies of water, while the Commerce Department's National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration regulates marine fishing within 200 miles of the U.S. coastline. (Fishing beyond that distance is loosely governed by various international bodies and agreements.) There's nothing crazy about this regulatory divide: Large commercial operations dominate marine fisheries, whereas freshwater fishing is largely the province of sportsmen. Monitoring stocks of ocean fish is also more expensive and complex than keeping track of the population in a river.

From a commercial fisherman's perspective, this governance structure isn't nearly as vertiginous as the president implied. Most fish fall neatly within the jurisdiction of one of the two agencies. Salmon are among a handful of fish species, along with shad and eel, that cross the regulatory boundary in the course of their regular migrations, but commercial operators hunt salmon exclusively in the ocean.

Palmer goes on to note that there's a long-running effort to create a National Oceans Agency that would coordinate oceans-related policy across all the different departments. More on that here.

By Ezra Klein  | January 27, 2011; 12:56 PM ET
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"there's a long-running effort to create a National Oceans Agency that would coordinate oceans-related policy across all the different departments"

Yes, that's what we need, another layer of bureaucracy.

Posted by: ostap666 | January 27, 2011 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Which points out the irony - if you have smaller-scale, less centralized organization, it can lead to inconsistencies that make good laugh lines, and occasionally cause real problems
(like law enforcement agencies not sharing info in advance of 9/11). A larger, more centralized organization, however, is "more bureaucracy." The original rationale for "czars" was to establish one player who could coordinate the efforts of various organizations in relation to a particular issue (maybe we need a "salmon czar."). But this leads to backlash when there are too many "czars."

All of which is not to argue that we just say "whatever" and throw the whole thing out, which is what the libertarian types want to do. We live in a modern, complex society, and it requires heavy lifting to get it sort of right, and rarely perfect. But I don't see anarchy and/or social Darwinism as a reasonable alternative.

Posted by: Virginia7 | January 27, 2011 3:51 PM | Report abuse

I find it is helpful to assume everyone else is a complete idiot and if they had just listened to you, things would be better off. What's on TV?

Posted by: willows1 | January 27, 2011 3:55 PM | Report abuse

The fact that Obama knows how to use laugh lines when dealing with issues that are actually in place for good reasons is both infuriating and admirable. Infuriating because it just papers over the complex wonky reasons that things work the way they do. But admirable in that he knows what resonates with a public who doesn't actually care about those details.

Everyone "knows" that the difference in regulating salmon "doesn't make sense," so it serves as a valuable illustration, even though that specific rule isn't actually going to change.

Posted by: constans | January 27, 2011 3:55 PM | Report abuse

The 'funny' regulatory divide might not be ideal, but makes perfect sense. But here's something salmon-related that makes no sense at all: the AquaBounty transgenic salmon is being considered for approval by the Food and Drug Administration as a "New Animal Drug," and therefore is being evaluated by a special Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC). Splicing genes from other species into salmon DNA is far more than a "drug", as you can't just stop treatment and end up with a normal salmon. Transgenic fish like this should be addressed by an entirely new committee that can address the ethics, environmental risk, labeling issues, and etc.

Here's a piece by Jill Richardson at Grist about the issue:

Posted by: meander510 | January 27, 2011 4:28 PM | Report abuse

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