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Behold, the fish cannon

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Whooshh Innovations wants to vacuum your fish to safety

Salmon are amazing fish. They’ll swim hundreds of miles against the current, hurl themselves up waterfalls, and risk being eaten by bears as they return to their birthplace to spawn. But some obstacles are too much, and that’s where Whooshh Innovations comes in. Behold, the salmon cannon. Seriously, watch this video of fish getting launched out of pneumatic tubes:

Whooshh Innovations ("Whoosh" was already taken) first designed its tubes to transport fruit, but as Washington state debated what do about hydroelectric dams and the salmon whose migrations they blocked, the company saw its technology might have another purpose. If Whooshh tubes could send apples flying over long distances without damaging them, maybe, an employee thought, they could suck fish up and over the dams blocking the Columbia river.

"So we put a tilapia in the fruit tube," says Todd Deligan, Whooshh's vice president. "It went flying, and we were like, ‘Huh, check that out.'"

Five years later, they have tubes tailored for trout and salmon. A test is being run at the Roza Dam in Washington state, where Chinook salmon went through the tubes in June. So far, Deligan says, they seem to be doing well. The Department of Energy will run another test in September, and in several weeks — whenever the salmon show up — the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will use a 150-foot-long mobile tube system to rocket salmon up a 20-foot embankment into the back of a truck.

Deligan is fully aware of the absurdity, as the company's video soundtrack should make clear. Internally, they called it the "salmon cannon." "At a talk at the National Hydropower Association, I hit play on the video and the first fish goes flying out, and the audience is dying. I had to say, 'It's okay to laugh, this is utterly ridiculous.' Then people start talking and they say, 'Holy cow, why hadn't we thought of something like this before?'"

"So we put a tilapia in the fruit tube"

Washington's Columbia river is home to several enormous hydroelectric dams that prevent salmon from migrating to the ocean and back. Some smaller dams have fish ladders — basically slanted mazes that salmon can flop their way up, dodging the dam's turbines. But migration currently stops at the 236-foot-tall Chief Joseph dam, and behind that is Grand Coulee, at 550 feet. Ladders for these dams would be be long and prohibitively difficult for salmon to traverse.

Wildlife departments and public utilities already do strange things to get salmon past manmade barriers, putting them on trucks, loading them onto barges, and in a few cases, lifting them by helicopter. The tubes, Deligan says, could be a less labor-intensive and more effective method, plus it would be less traumatizing to the fish than getting caught and driven around on a truck.

The speeds of this and the top .gif have been altered.

So far Whooshh has tested tubes going 100 vertical feet, but Deligan says that, in theory, they could go far higher. "Grand Coulee would be the ultimate goal," he says. The longest Whooshh tube so far is 500 feet, but to date it's only been used on frozen fish. A model was just sent to Norway to be used in a fish-processing facility.

The test in June showed that fish will voluntarily enter the tube. When they swim into the entrance, the vacuum sucks them in and gives them initial boost; after that, elevated pressure behind the fish keeps them moving at about 15 to 22 miles per hour till they go flying out the other end. The speed, Deligan says, can be adjusted. Mist is applied to keep the fish wet as they zoom along. Currently the tubes are being hand-loaded, but Deligan says the test at the Roza site showed that "the fish just swim right in."

"We have to take it at its face value," Deligan says. "Try it, put a fish in, watch it go, laugh. But then really contemplate where this could go."