Eco-companies work together to shoot salmon past broken fish ladder in Upper Park
It might be difficult to grasp at first how shooting salmon from a “cannon” is helpful for the fish—let alone a viable means of re-establishing a salmon run.
But in the more remote reaches of Upper Bidwell Park, where a decades-old fish ladder sits in disrepair and prevents most salmon from proceeding higher into the watershed to spawn, using newly available technology to help them clear the obstruction is a legitimate option. At least, that’s an opinion shared by local eco-firm FISHBIO and Whooshh Innovations, a company based in Bellevue, Wash., that designs and produces vacuum-powered transport systems to launch fish past manmade dams and diversions.
Referring to the systems as “salmon cannons” was an internal joke that Whooshh shared with the press last fall, explained Todd Deligan, the company’s vice president. The story went viral and was eventually picked up by HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which ran a segment including a clip set to classical music of airborne salmon in slow-motion and then Oliver shooting plastic fish at rival talk-show hosts.
As much as Whooshh reveled in the national attention, the term “cannon” is misleading, Deligan said.
“We’re not shooting fish out of a cannon,” he said. “We’re transporting them quickly in a wet, frictionless environment with really no pressure or stress.”
Deligan and fellow Whooshh representative Steve Dearden recently visited Chico to meet with FISHBIO scientists and assess the feasibility of installing such a transport system at the Iron Canyon fish ladder, which sits between Salmon and Brown’s holes in Upper Park. The ladder, made up of a series of staggered concrete pools, or “weirs,” has deteriorated substantially since its construction in 1958, becoming an especially difficult passage for fish when water levels are low.
The CN&R tagged along with the field team, first gaining an aerial perspective of the roughly hewn steps from the canyon’s north rim, then descending to creek level and boulder-hopping upstream from Salmon Hole so Dearden, a wildlife photographer, could snap shots of the ladder.
“This is a perfect example of an on-the-ground problem where current technology might not carry the day,” Deligan said. “There’s a very good possibility we can help here.”
About a year ago, FISHBIO caught wind of big fish splashing in Salmon Hole and confirmed that 10 spring-run chinook salmon had, despite drought conditions, made the journey from the Pacific Ocean (see “Return of the spring-run,” Greenways, June 5, 2014).
The excitement of that discovery, the first confirmed report of spring-run salmon in Big Chico Creek since 2011, was later dampened by the fact that FISHBIO spotted only two upstream of the ladder at Iron Canyon. That’s a critical passage, said Gabriel Kopp, FISHBIO’s director of operations, during a recent interview. It’s highly unlikely that salmon will spawn if they don’t proceed higher into the watershed, where they can hold in cool, shaded pools and lay their eggs in late summer.
Further dooming the outlook, the city of Chico had recently abandoned a long-languishing plan to rehabilitate the fish ladder. The proposed project, initially introduced in 2004, was always controversial. Getting construction crews and their heavy machinery on-site would be challenging and possibly damaging to the Upper Park access road and surrounding environment.
But those concerns were made moot last May, when Park and Natural Resource Manager Dan Efseaff went before the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission and announced that, despite support from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Caltrans, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an anonymous private donor, funding for the project was about $400,000 short of the estimated $2.2 million cost. The funds were returned and grant agreements canceled.
Meanwhile, the overall numbers of spring-run salmon in Big Chico Creek have slipped significantly since a recorded high of 369 were counted in 1998. But Kopp says the population could rebound, considering the historically robust spring runs in Butte, Deer and Mill creeks.
“The creek has remained relatively unchanged, minus the drought and climate change, so there’s always the possibility for growth and expansion,” he said. “But you just never know until you see it.”
Now that Whooshh has seen the ladder and confirmed the feasibility of installing a system there, the next steps are putting together a proposal for the city and securing a funding source. Recently, more state and federal grants have become available for fish-passage projects due to the drought. Deligan couldn’t get specific, but he said installing a Whooshh system would be far less expensive than the city’s abandoned plan.
From FISHBIO’s perspective, one potential benefit would be raising local interest in salmon.
“I think of the viewing station in the Feather River Fish Hatchery, where you can see the fish come up the ladder through the window,” Kopp said. “That connects you with the fish, gives you a sense of understanding and excitement. This technology could do the same thing—get people interested in what’s happening with the fish in Big Chico Creek and maybe help pool efforts toward conservation.”
There’s definitely a coolness factor to the fish cannon. The tubing is made of highly specialized thermoplastic elastomer that is nearly frictionless, allowing fish to slide through without removing slime and scales or damaging eyes; and highly flexible, conforming to the shape of the fish to make a vacuum seal. And it all works by using very little pressure. Fish swimming through hydroelectric dams may be exposed to water pressure of 100 to 200 pounds per square inch, Deligan said, while those transported by a Whooshh system are exposed to just 1 pound per square inch.
Logistically, the greatest challenge would be lowering an electric generator weighing several hundred pounds from the rim of the canyon to the creek, Deligan said. But that’s small fish to fry considering what’s at stake.
“This is all about getting these fish species back to their habitat,” he said. “And you have to ask, ‘What will inevitably happen if we don’t?’”