High-tech, portable fish passage may revolutionize salmon transport over dams, barriers

SEATTLE -- In British Columbia, a devastating rockslide is blocking critical salmon habitat on the Fraser River. The solution for passing fish over it may be in Seattle.

Seattle-based Whooshh Innovations has been pitching its high-tech fish passage system to politicians, governments, tribes and researchers for years. In late June, the company loaded a system onto a truck at its facility at Pier 91, destined for Chief Joseph Dam.

It sits assembled on a barge on the Columbia River, undergoing system testing and awaiting a final permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would allow the company to attach the floating fish passage system to the second-largest hydropower-producing dam in the country.

Chief Joseph Dam does not have fish passage. The experiment to prove Whooshh Innovations can safely transport fish above it will come at the company's expense.

"We're really looking forward to the results of the experiment, it's fun technology," said Dana Dysart, USACE Seattle District program manager.

"None of the fish will be released into the lake above the dam," NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein stated. "They will not use threatened or endangered fish. This is a test to see if fish can be lifted the height of the dam without harm or reduced reproductive ability."

"We are very interested and are watching closely with our state and tribal partners," Milstein added.

But there's a chance this system could get rerouted. With a real crisis unfolding north of the border near Big Bar on the Fraser River, British Columbia is considering Whooshh as a way to get fish above the blockage in the meantime.

Whooshh's fish passage system is portable, comes floating on a barge and can be attached to a dam using wires.

"Within a couple of weeks, we can have a system installed where traditional fish ladders may take 5, 6, 7 years," said CEO Vincent Bryan III.

Fish ladders also take fish roughly one to two days to climb. Bryan said his mechanism can pass a fish up a dam in less than a minute. In a slippery, frictionless tube, fish can glide about 25 feet per second before plopping on the other side of an obstruction.

Perhaps what is most intriguing is how it all started: Apple picking.

"We were solving a different problem: How to get a piece of fruit from a tree into a bin gently without bruising it," Bryan said.

But then, another Washington state staple needed help: Salmon.

"There's some low hanging fruit out here where we can have a really substantial impact," he said.

Whooshh's high-technology system draws fish in and takes it through a scanner, where it can be sorted by species, wild or hatchery, and identify and remove invasive species that'll harm native fish survival in the river system.

"This all takes about a second and a half before we have to make a decision," Bryan said.

The answers to those questions can better help fish managers with hatcheries and endangered populations. Whooshh has worked closely with state and federal governments and tribes to conduct tests.

Bryan said years of work on the system has made sure that fish can never be injured. Managers like NOAA Fisheries will need to see for itself.

"We know this is going to help," Bryan said. "The trickier part is how do we get it deployed quickly."

"When you have mother orca out here telling us all that we're literally dying, the key is taking action when we still have the chance to affect the change," he continued.

Along with the U.S. and Canada, Bryan said parties in Europe are also looking at the technology.