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Knowledge Exchange for Efficient Passage of Fishes in the Southern Hemisphere

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - KEEPFISH (Knowledge Exchange for Efficient Passage of Fishes in the Southern Hemisphere)

Reporting period: 2018-01-01 to 2019-12-31

Barriers such as dams and weirs have been built in rivers for centuries. It has long been known that such barriers block the movement of fish and result in local extinctions and socioeconomic impacts due to the collapse of inland fisheries. This is a particularly important theme since the world has recently entered what has been called the “second great dam building age”, with 1000s of large dam projects and countless small barriers under construction or in the planning process. The main objective of this dam building is to support the reduction of carbon emissions. The Southern Hemisphere is seeing an especially strong boom in dam building. We need to ensure that the curbing of carbon emissions in this way does not come with unacceptable costs to the environment and society.

Mitigation measures that aim to reduce the impact of hydropower dams on fish movement have generally focused on structures especially designed for fish to swim through, whilst minimising the loss of water that could otherwise be used to produce energy. We call such structures ‘fishways’. However, beyond a few species in Europe and North America, we do not have enough knowledge about what conditions we need to create to help the fish get over the barrier. This could mean that expensive fishways are being constructed that do not work for native species, leading to declines in biodiversity and fisheries.

With this in mind, the KEEPFISH project aims to achieve the following:

1. Gather the best available evidence on the needs of native species in the Southern Hemisphere to improve fishway design
2. Identify priorities for future research to improve fishway design and monitoring
3. Train early career researchers to enable them to better address the priorities
4. Establish a team of stakeholders committed to improving fishways
5. Communicate the results to other scientists, raise public awareness and influence the people responsible for making decisions about fishways.
In its first two years, the KEEPFISH project has resulted in the following:

• Training of 29 academic staff, civil servants and industry staff
• Production of new knowledge on the needs of a range of fish species
• Several meetings with stakeholders and researchers
• A public engagement event
• Submission of applications for further collaborative research funds.

This progress has largely been based on the movements of staff between partner institutions. So far, 26 months of staff movements have been completed from a total of 28 months funded by the European Commission.


The project has provided excellent opportunities for early career researchers to learn new skills and apply them to the problem of fish passage. In 2016, two early stage researchers from Chile received a total of 10 months training in Europe. Also in 2016, an early stage researcher from the United Kingdom spent one month at the University of Melbourne learning how to analyse the evidence that can be found in 1000s of scientific publications. Later, in 2017, a further early stage researcher from Chile joined a group of ecologists and climate scientists in the United Kingdom to receive training on predicting the impacts of climate change on hydropower development and fish.

In order to cascade this training down to a large cross-section of people working on fishways in the Southern Hemisphere, the senior members of the KEEPFISH project held a one-week summer school in Chile in January 2017. It was attended by 25 people from local and regional government, universities and hydropower companies.

Knowledge production

The main results so far have revealed the reasons why fishways succeed or fail. Importantly, findings have demonstrated the very different needs of native species in the Southern Hemisphere compared to the salmon and trout that have traditionally been the focus of fishway design, and exactly what this means for engineers tasked with designing these structures. All of the results have been packaged in a way that is accessible to the people making decisions about barriers and fishways as part of their day-to-day work.

Stakeholder participation

Constant communication with stakeholders has resulted in the establishment of a new group of over 30 people committed to improving the research, regulation, design and management of fishways in Chile. The team are also involved with another established group of stakeholders in New Zealand. The group have agreed a set of research priorities and principles for making decisions about fishways and river barriers in general. They are actively working together and sharing information to support common goals.

Public engagement

The KEEPFISH team organised an event in New Zealand to celebrate ‘World Fish Migration Day’ in April 2016. Attracting 100s of people young and old, the event focused on raising awareness of the need to preserve the routes taken by fish during their migrations. Another such event is planned to take place in the UK in April 2018. Further contact with the public has been achieved through the use of social media.

Submission of collaborative funding applications

In order to sustain the network of researchers and stakeholders involved in the KEEPFISH project, and to obtain funds to tackle critical research questions, two applications for further funding were submitted by the team during 2017.
The KEEPFISH project has moved the science and practice of fishways beyond the state of the art through the synthesis of existing knowledge and the production of new knowledge on the needs of diverse species. A systematic review of available evidence clearly showed that certain aspects of fishway design are poorly studied. This helped the team to set out a blueprint for future research. It also had an impact on the wider scientific community, as exemplified by citations in recent high-profile publications in fisheries journals. As a logical extension of the systematic review findings, the KEEPFISH team worked with international fishway design experts to develop the first probabilistic model to support fishway design. The model, called ‘Fish Passage Network’ (FISH-Net) is already helping engineers design better fishways, assisting decision-makers to make more informed evaluations of proposed hydropower projects, and providing a framework for the incremental progress of scientific studies.

As well as pursuing a range of research projects on fish behaviour, the team is now working to better define what it means to achieve effective mitigation using fishways. Traditional definitions of ‘fishway efficiency’ focus on crude percentages of fish that use the fishway to pass the barrier, yet it is not clear what percentage is enough to support the viability of fish populations. It is therefore important that we develop tools that help us to set realistic targets for fishways that would support biodiversity and fisheries. By combining the outputs of ecological models with carefully collected data on fish populations throughout whole river basins, the KEEPFISH team is making clear recommendations on how to set fishway targets and how to check that the targets are being achieved. Such progress changes the way that we think about fish movement and opens the door to better conservation of previously neglected, but nonetheless important, fish species around the world.
A sub-group of stakeholders discuss future priorities for fish passage research and management
The KEEPFISH consortium meet for a tour of the Angostura hydropower plant, Chile
KEEPFISH partner Paul Kemp (University of Southampton) gives a lecture at the summer school, Chile
The Angostura dam on the River Biobío, Chile