"The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while 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," Obama said of his "favorite example" of government inefficiency during Tuesday's State of the Union address.
The president said he was developing a plan to "merge, consolidate and reorganize" the government to make America more competitive. He did not specify how the oversight of salmon fisheries might be streamlined.
Regulatory and wildlife experts said Wednesday that while the current arrangement might seem complicated or messy, the system serves a vital purpose and works just fine. Changing it, they said, wouldn't necessarily save money, and could cost taxpayers, at least in the short term.
Because salmon spawn in freshwater rivers and streams but live most of their lives in salty waters along the coasts, multiple federal agencies manage the steps that ultimately land packages of smoked and frozen fillets in U.S. supermarkets every year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, manages the freshwater habitats in which salmon reproduce and operates hatcheries to help preserve the species.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the Commerce Department, regulates the offshore commercial fishing of salmon, setting catch quotas and measuring fish stocks.
Fish that are processed, such as smoked or canned salmon, are inspected and regulated either by the Food and Drug Administration or the Agriculture Department for safety.
"There are certain functions that have to be performed and are performed by government, and they are performed no matter what the organizational structure may be," said University of Pennsylvania law professor Cary Coglianese, who directs the school's program on government regulation.
Coglianese said academic studies of reorganizations and consolidations suggest they won't likely lead to dramatic improvements in government functions -- and would cost money.
Streamlining Can Mean Higher Costs
"Reorganizations often have a lot of transition costs associated with them as government begins to work in its new organizational form," he said. "It may be worth it in some cases, but there's no panacea for making government work better."
The creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, one of the most recent government reorganizations, brought 22 disparate agencies under one roof. It created the third largest cabinet agency through a costly and at times difficult transition, Coglianese said.
Coglianese said the current political landscape would also make any proposed reconfiguration of government agencies -- involving salmon or any other good or service -- difficult.
"It may sound nice in political speech. One may get a lot of symbolic credit for doing it," he said. "But every one of those federal agencies has associated with it one or more congressional committees or subcommittees who have chairs of those committees, who like to be able to call to hearings the heads of those agencies, and go home and tell their constituencies that they're working hard to improve whatever that agency might be."
As for fishermen themselves, they say government oversight by multiple agencies at different steps in the production line hasn't posed a problem -- and a change on paper wouldn't have a substantive effect on business.
"We have regulations. We understand the need for them. If we're going to maintain these resources we depend on ... you could put them all under one roof. I suppose that would make some bureaucrat happy, because everything would look nice and clean on paper," said Zeke Grader, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
"We're just happy Obama mentioned salmon in his speech at all!"