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Here’s How That Internet-Famous ‘Fish Tube’ Works

The cheap, efficient pneumatic tubes may be a good solution for helping salmon and other migratory species move past dams

smithsonian.com

Over the past few days, the internet has unleashed it’s collective wit on a video of the “salmon cannon,” a gadget that is used to transport migratory fish, primarily salmon, over and around dams blocking their way. While slinging fish upriver using a pneumatic tube is kind of funny, it’s also a legit piece of conservation equipment that may help to restore ecosystems.

The fish frenzy began when a video of the fish cannon—actually a fish migratory system created by the aptly named company Whooshh Innovations—was highlighted on the news platform Cheddar. From there, the video, which shows people loading salmon into the tube and then follows the fish’s journey through the migrator tube up and over a dam, went viral.

The internet did its thing, adding the music from Super Mario Brothers to the scene as well as a crowd favorite: Lady Gaga’s iconic belting in the song Shallow. Lots of people want to take a ride in it.

As Scottie Andrew at CNN reports, the fish cannon is not a new invention, and when it first hit the media in 2014, comedian John Oliver spent almost five minutes riffing on the salmon cannon.

Aja Romano at Vox reports that the fish tube is as useful to conservation efforts as it is absolutely bonkers. During the 19th and 20th centuries, rampant dam building across the United States blocked the migratory paths of many fish species, in particular salmon that naturally swim upriver to spawn in the rocky pools where they were born. With 85,000 dams in the Unites States alone, that means the natural pathways for a lot of fish have been disrupted, pushing many species—especially native salmon—onto the endangered species list.

Once this problem was recognized, scientists began to try to remedy the situation. One solution was to build “fish ladders” into dams, or a series of stepped pools designed to allow the fish to flop their way over dams to their spawning grounds. But recent studies found that the ladders are too hard to navigate, beat up the fish, and only a small fraction of fish actually find and use the ladders. The other option is trapping the fish and hauling them upstream via barges, trucks or sometimes helicopters, an expensive and resource intensive solution that often leaves fish disoriented.

The fish cannon, originally designed to transport fresh fruit in orchards, is still being evaluated by government agencies and conservation groups but so far appears to be a better solution. CNN’s Andrew reports that the fish are placed in the tube where differential pressure pushes them along a flexible tube that expands to accommodate their size. They travel at about 22 miles per hour and get misted by water the entire way. Ideally, the fish don’t have to be fed through the cannon by hand. Instead, the entrance to the tube is camouflaged as habitat attractive to the fish and they will enter the accelerator on their own. When running at full capacity, the machine can fling 50,000 fish upstream every day.

A study of the system conducted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories published in April in Fisheries Research found that the animals sustained very few injuries from the Whooshh tube and there were only a very small number of problems, like fish getting stuck in the tubes.

“The results of our studies have shown that the system does have potential to assist in migration of salmonids. Future evaluations are still needed to compare the passage success with conventional fishways,” a Whooshh spokesperson tells Vox’s Romano.

So far, reports CNN, Whooshh has sold 20 of their fish cannon systems to government agencies in Europe and the U.S., including one that is almost a quarter-mile long.

“People think it’s crazy,” Whooshh CEO Vince Bryant says. “This is the real deal, guys. This is not some internet video thing.”

In fact, some restoration projects are counting on the fish cannon or other new solutions to bring salmon back to areas where they’ve disappeared. Courtney Flatt at Northwest Public Broadcasting reports that last Friday the Colville Tribe in Washington State released 30 salmon above the Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River and plans to release more salmon above the Grand Coulee Dam. The goal is to bring the fish back to the area, which has plenty of suitable salmon habitat that the fish have not been able to access for 80 years. The project, however, is counting on a newer technology, like the salmon cannon or a floating surface collector, to transport the fish around the massive dams to restore their traditional run.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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