Whooshh Innovations, based in Washington State, manufactures innovative fish passage structures that safely move migratory fish through tubes over dams in seconds, rather than the hours or days required by conventional fish ladders. In response to recent multibillion dollar proposals to breach four dams on the lower Snake River, Whooshh has countered with a $67 million plan to install its Passage Portal systems at the dams instead. In this interview, Whooshh Cofounder and CEO Vince Bryan tells us about how Whooshh’s proposal stands to protect fish and free up water while preserving hydropower on the Snake River.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Vince Bryan: I’m one of the founders and the CEO of Whooshh. I’ve been in this position since the company started in 2008. We started out as Picker Technologies, focusing on agriculture, and then pivoted to something that is also important to agriculture: the conflict between agriculture, hydropower, and water.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your company.
Vince Bryan: Our primary focus is on fish passage—assisting fish past barriers. We all grew up learning about how fish ladders help fish to pass barriers and dams, but they are expensive and don’t adapt to changes in the environment. In many cases, the fish have not adapted to them either. Fish ladders spill a lot of water, since water is continuously going down them. We are trying to address the problem of getting fish past barriers while avoiding excessive spilling and protecting fish health.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your fish portal device?
Vince Bryan: The Whooshh Passage Portal is our most advanced fish passage system. The fish swim into the system and go up a ramp to a false weir. It dewaters the fish for a fraction of a second and we image the fish from three different angles. We get a perfectly clear image of every fish, and a computer calculates its size of the fish and identifies it by species. We can make sorting decisions based on those factors. The fish is directed into one of several tubes that is appropriate for it. If it’s an invasive species that should not be put over the dam, it can even be removed from the river system entirely. We can put wild fish over the dam and deliver hatchery fish to the hatchery. If we want to send the fish over the dam, it enters what the press has frequently called our salmon cannon. A pressure differential is created between the front end and the back end of the fish that sends the fish over the barrier through a soft, flexible tube at a speed of 25 feet per second. That pressure differential is not harmful to the fish, and we create a frictionless environment inside the tube with enough mist so the fish can exchange oxygen and remain cool. We use just a few gallons of water per hour to create the mist. We can move up to 40 fish per minute.
Irrigation Leader: Would your system work as a replacement for a traditional fish ladder system?
Vince Bryan: That’s the whole intention here: to create a system that moves fish through the watershed at a quicker rate and that is safer for the fish. Our system also improves fish health because it eliminates the need for the fish to expend all the energy necessary to climb a fish ladder. They can enter our system, get to the top of the dam, and continue their journey, rather than spending days climbing a ladder and then having to rest in the reservoir once they make it up. We’ve done a comparison study on the Columbia River that showed that the fish that went through the Whooshh system ended up an extra 100 kilometers (62 miles) further up the river a week after passing the dam than those that went up a ladder. Climate change puts extra stress on fish, which means that this is even more important. Our objective is to get fish through waterways more quickly so that they have more energy and can successfully spawn. This also allows them to reach the cooler waters of their spawning grounds more quickly.
Irrigation Leader: How many Passage Portal systems do you have installed today, and where are they?
Vince Bryan: The Passage Portal system is our newest system. We did a demonstration project at Chief Joseph Dam in 2019. In 2020, we were called in for a project on the Fraser River in Canada, where there had been a rockslide. That was not a demonstration. We worked in an incredibly remote location without roads, power, or a water hookup. Within several months, we had installed two systems. We had to reinstall one system a couple times when a 100‑year flood event occurred. We were able to get thousands of salmon entering the system within about 90 days of the time when we received the contract. Fraser River was our biggest Passage Portal installation: It was a six-tube system that could cover the full range of species we expected, including sockeye, pinks, Chinooks, Coho, and steelhead.
Right now, we are in the planning stages of several other installations ranging from Oregon to the East Coast, and we are in discussions with potential customers in Sweden. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed a lot of the permit approvals and hence our work on some of those projects. They will likely be completed in 2022.
The project at the Lower Snake River Dam and on the Columbia is the reason we started working on our technology. My family has property in Quincy, Washington, where we’ve grown grapes and apples for over 40 years. We could see the issues developing for years and observed the extreme measures that were being taken to try to help the fish. It was apparent that the conflicts over water use and fish passage needed different solutions. Our focus has been on the fish first, because if the fish aren’t safe and don’t reach the spawning grounds, we haven’t solved the problem. At the same time, we’ve been figuring out how to get the fish through the system more efficiently and how to make better use of the water, which already has many demands on it.
Irrigation Leader: Would you lay out the current concerns about the dams on the lower Snake River and explain why some are proposing their breach?
Vince Bryan: Those who are proposing the breach are technology-focused experts. They’ve seen that there’s a problem, and their solution is to take down the dams and hope it all returns to the way it was. That can work if you’re in a watershed that hasn’t changed. That’s not the case for the lower Snake River and the Columbia basin. We need to be open to other solutions.
We have made a counterproposal, suggesting the installation of our systems at those dams. Our proposal would cost $67 million, including the estimated costs of the civil work the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might have to do to make the changeover. That turned out to be about 500 times less than the Simpson proposal. The key thing is that it can be done right away, and the water savings can pay for that system over a period of 10 years. Our calculations assume that the water currently going down the fish ladders could produce additional hydropower.
In our proposal, we looked at what has been happening at the lower Snake River dams over the last 20 years. At the same time that we have seen the salmon populations go down, a higher number of shad have been trying to cross those dams in the same ladders. Shad are not an invasive species, but they’re nonnative and might breed at the same time as many of the salmon. Salmon don’t like migrating in the ladders, and being in a crowded situation may cause them to delay. Our proposal was focused on improving the habitat for the salmon. We wanted to help the adult salmon to migrate upstream by removing the shad from the area. Shad have a 2‑year life cycle, so you can effectively eliminate them from migrating within the ladders in a couple of years so that they do not crowd the salmon.
We would also use our scanning and sorting technologies to deliver the salmon over those dams in a fraction of the time while also making an accurate count of every fish that comes through the system. Today, a human counter actually looks through a window and counts fish for 8 hours a day. The total number is estimated based on those numbers, and we make decisions based on those estimates. Our system would provide an accurate count of each fish and an image of each fish. We would know whether a fish was coming into a system already injured and could determine whether its wounds would prevent it from reaching its spawning grounds. or if the fish was in good enough condition to make it. When we had a scanner in Bonneville a couple of years ago, we were able to report that 14 percent of the Chinook salmon coming through the dam in the month of May had a major injury. Many were caused by the pinnipeds below that dam. You could predict that those fish were not going to make it to their spawning grounds due to things that happened below the dam. That gives us better decisionmaking data.
The fish ladders are helpful, but when you have multiple dams in a row, especially high-head dams like the ones on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, as well as changing water conditions that are causing the water to warm up as the season progresses, we can’t afford delays in the fish’s migration through the system.
We need 2 percent or more of the fish to return to their spawning grounds in order to have abundant growth. We think that more than 2 percent of the fish come back to the mouth of the river, but less than 2 percent reach their spawning grounds. We want to fix that and provide a more natural habitat without nonnative fish in the ladders and reservoirs.
This is something we can do now, as opposed to years from now. It would be parallel to what we did at Fraser River, and we’d have data on the results immediately. If we do all that in the 10 years described in the Simpson proposal before anything is done with the dams, then we can reverse the trends we’ve been witnessing. We can’t prove that until we do it, but there is sound logic and science behind it, and there’s nothing to be lost in the process. It’s an opportunity for us to rethink our approach to the problem, using technology rather than assuming that a natural recovery will occur after removing the lower Snake River dams.
The biggest existential threat to all of us, including the fish, is climate change. Hydropower is a part of that solution, and it is not likely to go away because of that threat. As water becomes a more precious resource, the need to use it as efficiently as possible becomes greater.
Irrigation Leader: What are the next steps for your proposal?
Vince Bryan: We don’t usually go public with our ideas like this. This is a unique situation, because the lines have been drawn and there’s so much litigation going on. Even the states and tribes are not in full agreement on these issues. Over the last 20 years, these disagreements have prevented action.
In looking at the situation, we have been working to educate the state and federal legislative offices about our systems and our mission: to save the fish, feed the planet, and increase clean energy production. If we can bring this to the attention of the public, it can help politicians push for proposals and bring money to the solution rather than continue with unproductive arguments. By publishing our proposal, we’re reaching out to the taxpayers and telling them that we have worked on technology with these problems in mind. For the last 10 years, we’ve been doing the necessary research and studies, and we have the technology, including the Passage Portal and other fish passage systems.
We have also started selling stock in our company to the general public. You don’t have to be an accredited investor to do so; you can do it through a Federal Communications Commission–licensed platform called Start Engine. Part of the strategy is getting people involved in what we’re doing and bringing that bigger mouthpiece to the message. When we are talking with politicians and agencies, it helps to show there are people in their local jurisdictions who support our company and want to see this solution to move forward.
We have been advocating and educating for years now on what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re going about it. It’s time for execution. When it comes to government-owned dams like those on the lower Snake River, this requires political pressure. To all those who earn their living from farming, I would say that there’s an opportunity here to get involved. It makes a difference when farmers speak up with solutions to these problems. We cannot give up here: The solutions are at hand; we just have to get them deployed.