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Dec. 13, 2019

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Cannon could bring salmon back to the Upper Columbia

Invention’s roots in the apple industry in Eastern Wash.

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Published: August 17, 2019, 9:59pm

SPOKANE — Over the weekend, a 2014 video of a salmon being shot through a thin, flexible tube went viral.

Memes appeared imagining what the fish were thinking and feeling as they passed through the Salmon Cannon, as the salmon-propelling tube is known.

But, as internet hot flashes do, the excitement died down and the hordes dissipated, leaving a far more interesting — and important — story behind.

The Salmon Cannon, born in the apple fields of Eastern Washington, is a key component of the Colville Confederated Tribes’ plans to reintroduce salmon to the Upper Columbia River and, eventually, the Spokane River.

Swim, slide and glide

The Salmon Cannon is made by Bellevue-based Whooshh Innovations.

The principal is simple: The tube, which is a proprietary plastic mix and very smooth on the inside, molds to the body of each fish that swims into it. Misters, placed on the outside of the tube, further lubricate the interior with water and allow the fish to breath. Then, an air blower pressurizes the space from below, pushing the salmon up at speeds that can reach 20 mph, much like a pneumatic bank tube.

“From the fish’s perspective, it’s swim in, slide and glide,” said Vincent Bryan III, CEO of Whooshh Innovations.

The system doesn’t hurt the fish and causes them little to no stress, according to multiple studies. In fact, some research indicates that the system saves the salmon so much energy that they are more likely to survive the long swim back to their spawning grounds.

The delicacy of the entire mechanized operation is a reflection of the invention’s birth in the apple industry.

While Bryan grew up in the Seattle area, his family owns orchard land in Eastern Washington. After graduating from law school at Seattle University, Bryan worked in international law and eventually found a job with Adobe in Seattle. But by 2004, he was growing tired of the work and took a sabbatical. During that time, he got more involved in the family business and, spurred partially by immigration-related labor shortages, started to wonder if there were a more “efficient” and mechanized way to pick apples.

To find out, he quit Adobe and started a company that invented machinery that could quickly and gently pick apples from trees. He got millions in seed money from an agriculture manufacturing company and made progress on his apple-picking technology.

But in 2011, he got distracted from his original mission after seeing a helicopter and being told it was carrying salmon over an otherwise impassable dam.

That, he thought at the time, must be expensive. And inefficient.

He’d grown up fishing and had always “been passionate about fish,” so he looked at some of the equipment he’d designed to transport apples and, in particular, at a tube filled with cushioning material and thought, Why not fish?

To test his suspicion that the technology might translate, he went to a fish market in Seattle, bought live tilapia and fed them into a tube originally designed for apples.

“The tilapia seemed happy,” he said.

Like that, Whooshh Innovations was born.

Bryan saw that the technology could help solve one of the thornier barriers to restoring salmon in the Columbia River and to boosting other struggling salmon populations: dams.

Dams, even those with fish ladders, decimate salmon populations, as the fish make long upstream journeys to the spawning beds in which they were born in order to reproduce.

Dams without ladders, like Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee, are 100 percent deadly. Since 1930, when Grand Coulee was built, the salmon runs — once an annual bounty relied upon by native peoples — disappeared almost overnight.

The Salmon Cannon hopes to offer fish a detour, by transporting them up and over the dam.

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