Even with all the hubbub around its name, the salmon cannon isn’t so much an explosion as a flexible plastic tube that sucks fish up and over obstructions — like dams.
"The fish literally glide and slide through the system. It's the ultimate slip and slide," said Tom Shearer, the president of the company behind the salmon cannon, Whooshh Innovations.
The device is similar to a bank teller’s machine. The pressure is about the same fish would experience in 6 feet of water.
The fish are misted as they enter, which Shearer said, makes the fish feel like they’re in water. The salmon are then spat out at the end of the tube.
“It’s expending no energy, which is really key,” Shrearer said. “Then it has more energy to move on into the spawning grounds.”
Shearer demonstrated the technology to elementary school kids on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington. To show exactly how fast the salmon cannon can transport fish — in seconds — he challenged the students to a foot race: kid vs. cannon.
A click of the switch, and the cannon suctioned sponges that served as demonstration fish through a roller coaster-looking tube. The kids didn’t have a chance.
“I don’t think I beat it,” said Damyan Orozco, a fourth-grader at Westgate Elementary in Kennewick. “The dams, they block (the fish), and they built [the salmon cannon] with technology so they can swim over it without using energy and swim out.”
The students were attending a Salmon Summit, where 2,600 elementary students rotate through salmon activities and get to release juvenile fish they’ve raised during the school year.
“(At the release) some fish, they don’t want to go. Some just went super fast,” said Westgate fourth-grader Hiba Alhaidari. “It felt really cool, but then it was also sad because I also didn’t want to release the salmon (after raising them).”
After the demonstration, the salmon cannon’s next gig — it’s biggest project yet — could be to help sockeye salmon past the Cle Elum dam.
“We’re proving the system and that the fish could go 1,700 feet without being stressed or damaged in any way,” Shearer said.
And if it works, it’ll also meet one of the parts of a multifaceted water deal in Washington’s Yakima Basin — getting fish passage at that dam. The company is working with the Yakama Nation and the Bureau of Reclamation.
This Cle Elum project will be able to scan and sort fish by size. The company is developing algorithms to help it sort by hatchery and wild fish and sort into species — to keep invasive and sick fish out of the tube.
Getting fish up and over Cle Elum dam safely could do more than just help this one sockeye run, said Rachel Little, with the Benton Conservation District.
“This new technology could actually open up habitat that’s inaccessible now, and in terms of our fisheries resources, that’s huge,” Little said. “Habitat can be limiting, so if we can get the fish to more, better habitat that they can’t get to now, that could be huge in terms of building the salmon populations."