British Columbia

Inventors of the 'salmon cannon' propose novel solution to get fish past Fraser River rock slide

Washington state innovators are trying to pitch a non-dynamite solution to help 4.5-million incoming salmon get past a massive rock slide in the rain-swollen Fraser River, so they can spawn.

With time running out, innovators brainstorm ways to get 4.5-million salmon past blockage

A rock slide has constricted the Fraser River near Big Bar, just north of Lillooet. (Vincent Bryan/Whooshh Innovations)

A group of Washington-based innovators is trying to find a solution to help 4.5-million incoming salmon get past a massive rock slide at a pinch-point in a remote part of the rain-swollen Fraser River.

By Thursday afternoon, they were expected to present a safety plan to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in the hopes of building a complex fish-moving passageway.

Vincent Bryan, the innovator behind a pneumatic pressure tube dubbed the salmon cannon , has been up to the site at Big Bar near Clinton, B.C., twice now to solve the puzzle of how to give the fish clear passage. 

He says a single hand-loaded tube that fires fish to safety is just too small for this challenging environment, soon to be crowded with millions of migrating fish. 

Watch the salmon cannon in action

Salmon Canon

4 years ago
Duration 0:59
This pneumatic device was invented by Whoosshh Innovations to help salmon get over high obstacles.

Bryan's company, Wooshh Innovations, started by moving delicate fruit — but then pivoted to focus on fish and engineered a series of salmon moving devices to help move fish in the aquaculture industry over obstacles such as dams.

Adapting it to a river is possible, says Bryan.

"At Big Bar, it's actually quite simple. It's how can we get as many fish over as quickly as possible because there are so many coming," said Bryan.

1914 rock slide disrupted salmon stocks for decades

The Fraser River is the largest salmon-producing river on the planet. This time of year millions of fish start heading upstream — an estimated 4.5-million fish, including 10,000 chinook which are the key food for the endangered southern resident orcas.

The last time salmon were put in this kind of jeopardy was back in 1914 when a rock slide triggered by rail construction fell into the river at Hells Gate and obstructed salmon, affecting their population for decades.

So federal biologists looked around for a solution.

"This [salmon passage concept] is tried and tested technology that we are really excited about — it's just ... it's such a wild part of the river," said Matthias Herborg, a DFO biologist and the incident commander at the command post in Lillooet.

He says he is eager to review Bryan's new safety plan to see if it could work.

A version of the fish passage pathway that a Washington-based company hopes to build to help salmon get over a rock slide in the Fraser River. (Whooshh Innovations)

When Bryan first saw the fast-moving muddy mess the Fraser River has become this summer, he said he knew it would be a challenge when he took a look eight days ago, but then an unexpected 100 millimetres of rain in five days made the situation more difficult — with the river now a torrent running at 4,700 cubic metres of water per second.

"The Fraser River is a mess right now. It's filled with logs and debris and mud. It's a very difficult situation I would think for the fish in the water, as well as from a safety perspective on the surface."

So they reassessed.

Bryan says he's just spent several more days at the site with a team of Washington scientists, biologists and engineers trying to devise a way to get a massive flexible barge into place. Once that's done, he's confident that a salmon passageway that uses a pressurized system can safely move fish some 152 metres upstream.

Not simple

Federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told CBC Wednesday they are considering everything from trucking to helicoptering the fish past the obstacle.

He confirmed on Wednesday the DFO is working with the salmon cannon's makers but said getting the barge needed to build such a device in place was a challenge.

"The waters just below the slide are running at about 20 knots. It's really boiling water. It's a pretty serious challenge. We haven't ruled it out entirely but it's certainly not simple."

The site of a landslide in the Fraser River seen here before more than 100 millimetres of rain fell in the region, making the water faster and higher. (Vincent Bryan/Whooshh Innovations)

Bryan agrees.

He said the salmon jam will take more than a salmon cannon. He's thinking it will take a massive 45,000 kilogram flexi-barge with a complex fish passageway mounted on board to attempt to help this many migrating chinook, spring, sockeye and coho get to where they are going.

But helicoptering in the sections of barge is a safety concern. So they've looking at winching them instead.

"Moving lots of fish in a day is not unusual. Needing to set it up this quickly and in this kind of environment is unusual. There's no power there. There's no Internet there. There's no anything," said Bryan.

Hopes for a salmon line

But if they can get past the hurdles and build the system he's imagining, he's confident he can move 50,000 fish a day. And all it takes is one salmon to get it all started.

"Once the first fish enters the system — they are looking for a way up — when they are blocked they become quite agitated that they can find a way.

"One of the fish will identify this as a path and what we see happen is once the fish goes through — a line starts to form."

The eddy downstream of the slide site continues to be clogged with debris on July 11. (Department of Fisheries (DF0))


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award (2017). Got a tip?


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