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The University of Southampton

Advancing sustainable river engineering

Ecological Engineering at Southampton has improved the sustainability of river infrastructure throughout the world. Our impact is estimated to have exceeded £20m and has been achieved through innovative fish passage and screening in the UK, South America and Asia, preventing the spread of invasive fish in North America and Africa, and dam decommissioning in Europe, and North and South America. These measures have benefited the water supply and electricity generating industries, low income fishery stakeholders in developing nations, regulatory agencies, and the general public.


Research challenge and context

Globally we face unprecedented challenges in managing our freshwater resources to achieve sustainability, security and equity of supply. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it is assumed demand for water will increase 55 per cent from 2000 to 2050, if things carry on as they are. 

Water is an essential component of our energy systems, with the generation of electricity being dependent on taking large quantities of water from rivers to run a variety of systems including driving turbines at hydroelectric dams and barrages. However, this can have considerable negative consequences for other resources, such as fisheries that provide a self-sustaining source of protein for millions of people. Inland freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened of all, being much more extensively modified by humans than any other (Convention on Biological Diversity 2016). 

We need to mitigate the negative impacts of developing freshwater ecosystem services and Southampton’s research focuses on advancing the sustainability of river infrastructure to protect water resources and ecosystem services (particularly fisheries) in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Fish pass

Our solution

Since 2005, researchers at Southampton have developed new approaches to creating sustainable water and energy infrastructure. These have focused on three areas: 

  • Innovative fish passage and screening
  • Preventing the spread of invasive fish
  • Dam decommissioning

What was the impact?

Innovative fish passage and screening

Southampton created a new Cylindrical Bristle Cluster (CBC) fish pass that could be installed on gauging weirs to enhance the passability for fish. This has been adopted by the Environment Agency and since 2018, the CBC has been installed by several conservation groups including the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust and has opened up several kilometres of previously inaccessible river. 

Since 2014, Southampton academics have been providing expert advice to a collaboration of regional authorities in the Netherlands who are constructing the Fish Migration River - the first large-scale innovative fish pass of its type in the Netherlands. The project will set a global precedent by reconnecting the Ijsselmeer and Wadden Sea that has been cut-off by the 32.5 km long since 1927. Southampton researchers ensured that several modifications were made to the design to accommodate fish behaviour, saving the project between €5-10m and enabling planning consent to be achieved. 


In 2017, a collaboration between Southampton, HR Wallingford and the University of Nottingham led to an integrated hydrodynamic agent-based model being adopted by the UK and Swedish power industries to predict the movements of endangered European eels at power stations.  A novel electric deterrent has also been developed to deflect the European Eel from power stations in Canada and the USA. 

Another collaboration between Southampton and several South American partners has helped improve hydropower operation procedures by quantifying the impact of rapid decompression during turbine passage. 

Finally, a database on the swimming performance of a range of fish species has been created and used in the innovative design of multi-species fish passage facilities on large-scale dams on the Mekong River in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This research was done in collaboration with the Institute of Hydroecology and the Three Gorges University, in China, and the University of Concepcion, in Chile. 

Preventing the spread of invasive fish

Understanding how fish (particularly rarely-studied species of long-bodied fish such as eel and lamprey) respond to environmental stimuli and their locomotory performance is essential to developing strategies to prevent the geographic spread of invasive species. Southampton research has played a pivotal role in developing guidance to limit the impacts of invasive fish in the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada, and in Malawi. 

Dam decommissioning

Southampton expertise in the planned decommissioning of redundant dams has had impact in the UK, South America and Canada. These dams act as barriers to fish migration and researchers at Southampton have developed models to predict sediment release under varying dam removal scenarios, the impact of turbines on fish passage, and hydropower planning decision support tools.

What’s related?

International Centre for Ecohydraulics Research (ICER) 

Newsletter The Ouse & Adur Rivers Trust

SNH publishes new report on beavers and fish
SNH publishes new report on beavers and fish
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