Some of the most powerful images of wildlife involve the often titanic struggle to procreate. From the sight of countless adult mayflies rising to do their mating dance above the waters, with the added poignancy of knowing that they'll all be dead by nightfall; to the male Bower Bird building an elaborate love-nest to attract a mate. From the daring male Black Widow spider, who stands a very good chance of ending up as the much larger female's dinner; to the beautifully graceful aquatic dance of the Grebes.
Of all the images of nature battling to reproduce, there's probably none so iconic as the sight of salmon fighting their way upstream to mate and die.
But the hydroelectric dams blocking the Columbia River in Washington state are an obstacle too great, even for these powerful and single-minded fish. But where there's a will, there's a way and man has gone to some extraordinary lengths to assist salmon in getting to where they're going, from trucking them to their destination, to flying them by helicopter.
Whooshh Innovations ("Whoosh" was already taken) first designed its tubes to transport fruit, but as Washington state debated what do about hydroelectric dams and the salmon whose migrations they blocked, the company saw its technology might have another purpose. If Whooshh tubes could send apples flying over long distances without damaging them, maybe, an employee thought, they could suck fish up and over the dams blocking the Columbia river.Check it out:
"So we put a tilapia in the fruit tube," says Todd Deligan, Whooshh's vice president. "It went flying, and we were like, ‘Huh, check that out.'"
Five years later, they have tubes tailored for trout and salmon. A test is being run at the Roza Dam in Washington state, where Chinook salmon went through the tubes in June. So far, Deligan says, they seem to be doing well. The Department of Energy will run another test in September, and in several weeks — whenever the salmon show up — the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will use a 150-foot-long mobile tube system to rocket salmon up a 20-foot embankment into the back of a truck.
Washington's Columbia river is home to several enormous hydroelectric dams that prevent salmon from migrating to the ocean and back. Some smaller dams have fish ladders — basically slanted mazes that salmon can flop their way up, dodging the dam's turbines. But migration currently stops at the 236-foot-tall Chief Joseph dam, and behind that is Grand Coulee, at 550 feet. Ladders for these dams would be be long and prohibitively difficult for salmon to traverse.
The test in June showed that fish will voluntarily enter the tube. When they swim into the entrance, the vacuum sucks them in and gives them initial boost; after that, elevated pressure behind the fish keeps them moving at about 15 to 22 miles per hour till they go flying out the other end. The speed, Deligan says, can be adjusted. Mist is applied to keep the fish wet as they zoom along. Currently the tubes are being hand-loaded, but Deligan says the test at the Roza site showed that "the fish just swim right in."
"We have to take it at its face value," Deligan says. "Try it, put a fish in, watch it go, laugh. But then really contemplate where this could go."