The ‘salmon cannon’ helping fish to migrate (yes really)

A video of a fish transport system shooting salmon through a pneumatic style tube went viral over the weekend. But the comical contraption actually serves a very important role in helping the fish migrate.

The release zone for salmon being transported through the ‘cannon’

Footage of wild salmon flying through the air in plastic tubing has been unleashed onto the internet this weekend, and people are loving it. The video shows people placing the fish into the pneumatic style tube that then shoots the fish upwards at high speeds, before being fired out in a different part of the river. But as entertaining as it is to watch the comical contraption is actually helping the salmon in a big way. The fish transport system (FTS), going by nicknames such as ‘salmon cannon’ and ‘fish tube’, was designed by the aptly named Whooshh Innovations as a way of safely moving fish from one area to another. Whilst this can be used to move farmed fish it is primarily used to help wild river fish like salmon to bypass obstructions, like hydroelectric dams. However the video has people asking how it works, why it’s so important and whether or not it is really safe.

Going viral

The FTS has actually been around for some time now having first been put into operation by Whooshh Innovations in 2014. Somehow it has managed to go largely unnoticed for the last five years. But recent viral footage of the ‘salmon cannon’ has now made it something of an internet sensation. The video showing off the FTS, created and shared by the Cheddar media group, has now been viewed over 24 million times on twitter alone. Not only has it sparked a wave of memes and parody videos. It has also got people talking about the impact we are having in these ecosystems. Check out the footage for yourself below…

How does it work? 

The FTS works in a very similar way to a pneumatic tube, with some modifications designed to accommodate its unique cargo. It moves the fish via some very simple but clever physics involving air pressure. Basically the air pressure behind the fish is greater than the air pressure in front of it which causes it to shoot forwards along the tube. When the fish first enter the tube they are placed in an air lock compartment which creates the difference and then fires them forwards. As the salmon require water to breathe the tubing is also fitted with frequent water misters that allow them to do just that. The top speed is 22 miles per hour allowing for a quick trip that can take just a few seconds to complete. The system is adjustable to the situation it is needed for and can stretch hundreds of metres over very tall dams or just provide a quick jump over a smaller obstacle. The FTS can transport five fish at a time without losing pressure and as a result can move over 50,000 salmon a day!

A simple air pressure differential propels the fish forwards

Why is it important?

While the idea of the FTS is admittedly quite amusing, the reason behind its creation is no laughing matter. As we have built large structures in our rivers, such as hydroelectric dams, we have essentially blocked off the migration routes of important fish species such as the salmon. They travel upstream every year to spawn their eggs and allow the next generation to develop in the safer shallow waters. This is something that is hardwired into their behaviour and if they cannot make the journey upstream they will not reproduce. This is a big ecological concern as salmon are keystone species for many river ecosystems around the world. This means a reduction in their population size can have similar knock-on effects to other species. By allowing the salmon to bypass the massive obstacles we have made for them ensures that they can continue to thrive into the future. There are also other possible future applications for the FTS such as selectively removing damaging invasive species from certain areas.

Is it really safe?

So the FTS is designed to be beneficial for the salmon and their surrounding ecosystem. However the footage of salmon being fired at high speeds through plastic tubes has people seriously questioning whether or not it is actually safe for them. But Whooshh Innovations CEO Vince Bryant was quick to assure people of its safety in the wake of the increased publicity from the video. Talking to CNN he said “there’s no stress for the fish” and that “it should be a comfortable ride for them”. Other experts have backed him up saying that the pressures experienced by the salmon are not really any different to what they experience swimming in turbulent rivers every day. In fact a 2017 study even showed that the FTS was safer than other alternatives such as fish ladders that could cause real damage.

A salmon silhouette as it safely passes through the FTS

Another big concern was how the salmon were being man handled into the tube and how this may damage them or increase stress. However the footage in the video actually shows an older version of the system and in newer versions the fish actually swim directly into the tube themselves. This is achieved by habitat mimicry and strategic water flow, but the salmon are capable of avoiding the tubes if they don’t want to use them. But needless to say despite all these assurances there were still some people who were left unconvinced and condemned the FTS. However it is important to note that even if it is dangerous to the salmon, which it doesn’t seem to be, it is still better for them than not being able to reproduce at all due to the obstacles we have put in their way.

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