Over the past hundred and fifty years or so, the waterways of the Pacific Northwest have seen more and more dams built across them.
The dams provide hydroelectric power, as well as making irrigation possible in otherwise dry, arid areas.
But they have also contributed to the rapid decline of the once thriving salmon populations of the region.
The Columbia River Basin is a series of rivers which used to empty out into the Pacific Ocean. Young salmon would head out towards the ocean to mature while older salmon headed back to their home rivers and streams to mate and spawn.
But since the first hydroelectric dam in the Pacific Northwest was built in Spokane in 1885, the region has seen over 40 dams built along the waterways that make up the ancient salmon habitats.
Thirteen salmon species are listed as endangered and a number of otherds have already gone extinct.
One of the problems is that many dams lack fish ladders, which are basically series of steps that allow fish to get from one side of a dam to the other. This cuts off hundreds of miles of habitat to endangered salmon as well as their close relatives, the steelhead trout.
Many people argue that these fish ladders are almost completely ineffective. One study showed that only 3% of fish that make it past the first fish ladder in a series of dams will reach the last one. The ladders are also not big enough to accommodate larger fish species like sturgeon.
But now, a team of biologists in central Washington has come up with a creative solution to this problem: vacuum-pressurized tubes.
The idea originated in 2009 with Whooshh Industries, a Washington-based company that started out making vacuum tubes for fruit transportation and harvesting.
The concept was tested early last month. Biologists used Whooshh’s 40-foot flexible vacuum tubes to transport 90 salmon from a collection area to a tank truck waiting to transport them to a hatchery.
The biologists say that the tubes are less stressful than transporting fish by hand because it minimizes human contact and gets them back into water faster.
Whooshh is now working with state, federal and tribal groups to implement and improve the system. Though it’s still in its early stages, Whooshh has high hopes for the idea. Here’s Todd Deligan, who runs Whooshh’s fish-transport program:
“The ultimate goal would be to get fish to places they haven’t been able to access, like the upper Columbia… But that’s a very long-term goal. We’re not going over Grand Coulee (Dam) tomorrow, that’s for sure.”