Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Innovator,  Interview

Whooshh’s Innovative Fish Passage Solution—Save Water, Save Fish

Fish passage requirements can pose a challenge to dam owners and operators, including irrigation districts. Traditional fish passage installations like fish ladders can require a significant amount of time and money to install. To solve this problem, Whooshh Innovations has created a portable, modular, and technologically advanced fish passage system that accelerates fish through a tube up and over a dam in seconds. Its more advanced models can also scan the fish that pass through them and record their size, species, and other characteristics.

In this interview, Michael Messina, Whooshh Innovations’ director of market development and business affairs, speaks with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about Whooshh Innovations’ fish passage technology and how it stands to benefit irrigation districts, dam owners, and the natural world.

Joshua Dill: Tell us about Whooshh as a company.

Mike Messina: The company has its roots in agriculture, interestingly enough. The technology was first developed to mechanically and automatically harvest tree fruit without damaging it. There were a couple of aha moments that helped underscore the need for this technology. A few years back, Whooshh employees were testing the agricultural equipment in orchards in Washington State and saw helicopters flying overhead with buckets. When they asked what the helicopters were doing, they were told that they were moving fish over the dam. The Whooshh employees knew that there must be a better way. The other aha moment came when Whooshh employees visited a citrus orchard two summers in a row. During the second summer, everything was dying because the water had been redirected due to conservation requirements. Based on these and other factors, our company’s founder, Vince Bryan, wound up pivoting toward developing the technology for moving live fish safely and efficiently over barriers like dams and saving water in the process. 

Joshua Dill: What problems were Whooshh’s fish passage products introduced to solve? 

Mike Messina: It solves a trifecta of problems. From the water resources benefit, a fish ladder requires 5–10 percent of the water that moves down a river or canal. Our system uses very little water. That means there is 5–10 percent more water that can be put toward irrigation or hydropower. On the environmental front, if fish migrating upriver encounter a dam or similar barrier that does not have a fish passage method, they can’t get to their spawning ground. Fish ladders and trap-and-haul operations are alternate methods of fish passage, but they’re difficult and stressful. Each fish, on average, carries 3,500–4,500 eggs, and it can be exhausting for them to spend many hours going up a fish ladder. Our product, by contrast, moves them over the dam in a 10-second glide. The more fish you can move upriver, the more successful spawning takes place.

Finally, our systems are more affordable for operators. They are modular and portable and typically cost 60–80 percent less than a fish ladder or a trap-and-haul operation. They are easy to install, which saves time as well as money. In our generation, we’ve seen technology advance quickly, but the technology for moving fish over dams or barriers has remained stagnant. Fish ladders or trucks are still being used just as they were 60 years ago. The technology is here, and it’s time we apply it to this process in a way that will benefit the natural world. 

Joshua Dill: Would you give us a basic idea of how the product works? 

Mike Messina: Our more advanced systems are fully automated and do not require any personnel. When fish swim into them, they trigger a sensor and the system wakes up, much as a laptop wakes up when you touch the keyboard. The fish slides in and is scanned. In about half a second, 18 rapid-fire images of it are taken. Based on these images, the system makes quick measurements of the length and girth of the fish and makes a sorting decision based on the measurements. The fish is sorted into a specific lane and accelerated into a soft, flexible tube, which is made of proprietary material that is misted every 5 feet. The fish is then gently moved by pneumatic pressure behind it. The device does not move a column of water, just a fish, so it’s a simple operation that doesn’t involve large quantities of water. Sensors along the system control the fish’s speed as it glides forward and is deposited out the other end. 

Our scanners can provide much more sophisticated fishery data than other existing systems. At some dams, there are still people sitting in chairs with clickers in their hands trying to count how many fish go by or trying to determine what kinds of fish they were based on what they see through a murky viewing window. By contrast, our system can give exact counts and clear images of the fish in your waterway. Just knowing what is in your waterway can be important from a regulatory perspective. The system can also make sorting decisions that go beyond size. It can cull out invasive species and distinguish hatchery fish from wild fish. 

Not all your readers will need such an advanced system. We have small, portable, hand-fed systems as well. Some of our more portable systems just have a trap at the bottom where a person can hand-feed fish into the system and send them up and over the dam. If a smaller irrigation district normally has to divert or alter water flow at a certain time when there’s a fish run, our small, portable systems can help move those fish safely without really affecting the district.

Joshua Dill: How far do the fish travel to get over a dam?

Mike Messina: It varies from situation to situation. The longest we’ve done has been about 1,700 feet at the Cle Elum Dam in the Yakima basin district. Our system there was 185 feet high and 1,700 feet long and moved sockeye salmon up and over into the reservoir. On a system that long, the fish move at up to 25 feet per second. They are accelerated and then decelerated as they approach the end so that they are deposited more gently on the other side. 

Joshua Dill: Who are your clients?

Mike Messina: Mostly dam owners. Interestingly enough, we were just consulting with by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada. A recent landslide across the Fraser River in British Columbia has blocked the path of salmon migrating upriver, and the department is trying to find ways to move the salmon past it. It is talking to us about taking our systems there and helping out. There are other applications as well: Hatcheries and broodstock operations are using our systems to gently move fish from one place to another across facilities. 

Joshua Dill: How do you find new clients?

Mike Messina: We work with dam owners, partner organizations, regulatory agencies, and nongovernmental organizations—basically any group that can help us help fish safely pass to their spawning grounds. Interestingly, there is significant interest in the European market. There is a European Commission regulation called the Water Framework Directive, which mandates the provision of connected waterways for migratory species and water connectivity for better river basin management. There are many dams in Europe, and if an owner with 10 dams in their district is forced to put a fish ladder on each one, it could cost millions of euros. Our technology is being looked at seriously by owners in several countries because it’s both more effective for fish and more cost effective for them. Here in Washington, a variety of entities are working on the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Management Plan. The estimate for installing fish ladders on four large dams on the Yakima River was about $60 million per dam. Whooshh could provide passage on all the dams for less than the cost of one fish ladder. We can also produce superior data, including images and measurements of every fish that goes through the system. 

Joshua Dill: Have you been able to measure the results of your system on fishery health in rivers?

Mike Messina: Yes. About 20 different independent studies have been completed. One in particular compared the energetics of tagged fish that moved up a fish ladder versus those that went through the Whooshh system. The fish that went through the Whooshh system had far more energy and went much farther upriver. That’s good for prespawning mortality rates and for fisheries and their overall restoration.

Joshua Dill: What is your message for our readers?

Mike Messina: When dams come up for relicensing today, there are almost always requirements for fish passage. That can require a large capital outlay. Adding a fish ladder to a dam that doesn’t currently have one can cost millions of dollars and a year or more of civil work and construction. A Whooshh system can be installed in a month or so, and it’s adaptable. Once a concrete ladder is in, there it stays. In some instances, we can even find ways for the system to pay for itself as an operating expense. Another advantage that is key for your readership is the water savings. Our system does not require you to spill water for a fish ladder. It is a way to accommodate the environmental benefit of moving fish safely upriver without expending your water, which as any irrigation district knows, is a valuable resource. 

Michael Messina is director of market development and business affairs at Whooshh Innovations. He can be contacted at mike.messina@whooshh.com or at (206) 947-0353.