Last weekend, a 2014 video of a salmon being shot through a thin, flexible tube went viral.
Memes appeared imagining what the fish were thinking as they passed through the Salmon Cannon, as the salmon-propelling tube is known. On “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert wondered if the tube’s inventors considered naming the device the Bass Blaster. The New Yorker wrote, non-ironically, about the “nihilistic euphoria of the fish tube.”
But, as internet hot flashes do, the excitement died down, leaving a far more interesting — and important — story behind.
The Salmon Cannon, born in the apple fields of Eastern Washington, is a key component of the Colville Confederated Tribes’ plans to reintroduce salmon to the Upper Columbia River and, eventually, the Spokane River.
The principle is simple: The tube, which is a proprietary plastic mix and very smooth on the inside, molds to the body of each fish that swims into it. Misters, placed on the outside of the tube, further lubricate the interior with water and allow the fish to breathe. Then, an air blower pressurizes the space from below, pushing the salmon up at speeds that can reach 20 mph, much like a pneumatic bank tube.
“From the fish’s perspective, it’s swim in, slide and glide,” said Vincent Bryan III, CEO of Bellevue-based Whooshh Innovations, which makes the device.
The system doesn’t hurt the fish, according to multiple studies. In fact, some research indicates that the system saves the salmon so much energy that they are more likely to survive the long swim back to their spawning grounds.
While Bryan grew up in the Seattle area and studied law, his family owns orchard land in Eastern Washington. During a sabbatical from a job at Adobe, he got more involved in the family business and started to wonder if there was a more “efficient” and mechanized way to pick apples.
To find out, he quit Adobe and started a company that invented machinery that could quickly and gently pick apples from trees. But in 2011, he got distracted from his original mission after seeing a helicopter and being told it was carrying salmon over an otherwise impassable dam.
That, he thought at the time, must be expensive. And inefficient.
He looked at some of equipment he’d designed to transport apples and, in particular, at a tube filled with cushioning material and thought, Why not fish?
To test his suspicion that the technology might translate, he went to a fish market in Seattle, bought live tilapia and fed them into a tube originally designed for apples.
“The tilapia seemed happy,” he said.
Like that, Whooshh Innovations was born.
Bryan saw that the technology could help solve one of the thornier barriers to restoring salmon in the Columbia River and to boosting other struggling salmon populations: dams.
Dams, even those with fish ladders, decimate salmon populations, as the fish make long upstream journeys to the spawning beds in which they were born in order to reproduce.
The Salmon Cannon hopes to offer fish a detour, by transporting them up and over the dam through a tube.
But, as some pointed out after the technology’s surge of online popularity, the technology only addresses a single symptom of larger problems facing the species.
“Salmon cannons have their purpose to get over some dams that don’t have fish ladders,” said Sam Mace, the Inland Northwest director of Save Our Wild Salmon, in an email. “But they aren’t a solution on dams like the lower Snake, that have fish ladders and where the larger problem is the smolts having to get downstream, dealing both with the dams themselves and the hot water conditions, slow migration, and predator problems created by reservoirs.”
Bryan doesn’t believe that wholesale dam removal is a viable path forward, because “we also need the clean energy that those dams produce.” But he doesn’t dismiss the other problems caused by dams. Instead, he said, the technology developed by Whooshh could help address those problems, namely predation and heat stress.
Whooshh’s salmon technology could sort fish to reduce the predator population in reservoirs, giving salmon some respite: The fish first swim into a large enclosed box, passing briefly through a pocket of air where their photos are taken. A computer then determines what type of fish it is, whether it has any visible wounds and how big it is.
If, for instance, a predatory and invasive Northern Pike swims into the machine, it could be diverted to a “grinder,” Bryan said. Or, if a hatchery-raised salmon appeared, it could be diverted back downstream. Those decisions would be up to the fishery managers, Bryan said.
As for heat stress, preliminary studies have shown that fish using the salmon cannon are able to travel faster and farther upstream before the summer heat makes portions of the Columbia impassable.
Earlier this month, the Colville Confederated Tribes released 30 salmon into the Columbia River above Chief Joseph Dam. That’s the first time salmon have been in that stretch of river since the dam was built.
Now, a Whooshh Salmon Cannon is on a barge at Brewster, Washington, waiting for final approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to travel upstream to Chief Joseph to conduct live-river tests. There is already one installed at the Cle Elum hatchery, transporting fish from the hatchery to Cle Elum Lake.
If approved by the Corps of Engineers, the system could become an important tool in the Colville Tribes’ effort to restore salmon to their native waters in the Upper Columbia.
The Whooshh system costs between $2 million and $4 million, depending on where it’s installed.
“This could serve as another viable way that we can move fish,” said John Sirois, a fisheries coordinator for the Upper Columbia United Tribes. “We’re all about having another avenue to help the fish and help the salmon.”