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PhD opportunities: Helping fish migrate over dam walls with the UNSW Tube Fishway

The sight of Australian native fish in a drying pond at the base of a dam is enough to shock any environmentally conscious researcher. We are inviting interested applicants to apply for this fascinating project to create reliable fish passage around water retention barriers in Australia. The research centres around two key parts of the project:

  1. Field testing of our novel UNSW Tube Fishway (Harris et al. 2019) on different weirs for a variety of species, to improve migration of native fishes (silver perch, Murray cod, Australian bass, catfish). We will also be tackling how to do this at the expense of alien fish, such as carp and Gambusia.
  2. Laboratory testing of the UNSW Tube Fishway at the Water Research Laboratory in Manly Vale to optimise the hydraulic design – in an aim to prevent harm to fish during the transport process. This part of the research will involve both hydrodynamic testing as well as experiments with live fish. 

These PhD projects have the potential to experiment with other factors, such as: The practicalities of site location; Other species and different sizes of fish; Pipe diameter; and test other ideas for parallel pipe downstream migration. 

This diverse research has a team of ecologists and engineers providing the transdisciplinary skills and understanding of fish biology, behaviour and ecology in the context of hydraulics and engineering. 

How to apply:

Applicants should have either a strong quantitative background in ecology and confident with statistics, R and spreadsheets; or have an engineering background with relevant qualifications in hydraulics, water engineering or applied fluid mechanics. Applicants with First Class honours (or good 2A honours with publication) are encouraged to apply for an RTP at UNSW. 

Starting in early or mid-2021, top-up scholarships are available for domestic students who qualify for an RTP for a combined tax-free scholarship of up to AU $40K per year. (The amount of top-up depends on the applicants experience and skills).

Interested applicants should send a brief CV and statement of interest to:

Dr Stefan Felder: S.Felder@unsw.edu.au and Professor Iain Suthers: I.Suthers@unsw.edu.au   

About the UNSW Tube Fishway 

Australian governments spend millions of dollars to conserve aquatic biodiversity and fisheries threatened by water-resource development, but outcomes are poor when dams or weirs block fish migration. Migration is essential for fish biodiversity; however fish productivity and viability is obstructed by tens of thousands of barriers. Existing high fishways are unsatisfactory. Current approaches using fishways, locks and lifts vary in their success, but all are costly. The UNSW Tube Fishway Project (www.wrl.unsw.edu.au/research/tube-fishway-project) is developing a cost-effective technique to provide safe fish passage over most barriers less than 8 m high; with the potential of being effective for barriers much higher.

Conceptual diagram of the UNSW Tube Fishway (red) showing how the momentum of a downward surge of water swiftly transports fish up from below the dam and over the wall. We have safely achieved this with 4 m and 8 m lifts - which accounts for the majority of barriers in Australia. Dartmouth Dam on the Mitta Mitta River, a tributary of the River Murray, has a dam wall 180 m high. Photo: R.T. Kingsford



There are two key elements to this project: First is the fish attraction into a transfer chamber – using a design concept of existing fishways, that use a flow of water to attract free-swimming fish into the chamber.

The second element is to ensure the fish are transported safely through a sloping or vertical pipe riser and any remaining ecological implications. The transport process uses the momentum of a downward surge in the tube system to move the chamber contents, with the fish, vertically through the riser and over the dam wall. The key is a simple valve and solenoid switch that simultaneously closes the fish entrance and opens the downward surge pipe.  We need to know more about how the system can be scaled up, and the design and logistical concerns for each installation (including varying fish species, impact from floods, debris, vandalism, etc). 

Experimental UNSW Tube Fishway installed at WRL, providing an 8 m lift. The clear tube is the transfer pipe; the PVC pipe is the downward surge pipe, and provides the flow necessary to attract fish into the transfer chamber.

Progress to date

A one-third-scale physical attraction model has been constructed and tested. It consists of an initial collection bay that leadsthrough a slide gate into a trap within a cylindrical transfer chamber. This chamber, which ends in a conical section leading intothe exit pipe, can be sealed and pressurized, enabling trans

The effectiveness of this approach was demonstrated using experimental groups of young Australian bass, silver perch (~50 mm) and rainbow trout (~180 mm) (Harris et al., 2019). Four variations of the design were trialled from 2014–2017. A series of nine experimental trials with bass resulted in a 98% rate of successful passage within the brief period allowed for each operating cycle. No injuries or mortalities were recorded among experimental fish over the following two weeks.

This is a collaborative project between the Water Research Laboratory (Faculty of Engineering) and the Centre for Ecosystem Science (Faculty of Science) at UNSW Sydney; led by Adjunct Professor Bill Peirson, Dr Stefan Felder, Adjunct Associate Professor John Harris, Professor Richard Kingsford and Professor Iain Suthers.

  • Harris JH, Peirson WL, Mefford B, Kingsford RT and Felder S. (2019). Laboratory testing of an innovative tube fishway concept. Journal of Ecohydraulics Volume 5, 2020(1), 84–93.fers.
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