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The Walloon entrepreneur whose infrasound barrier is a world first

12:00 27/12/2017
Profish Technology develops world-class monitoring tools to protect fish from industrial intakes

Growing up near the banks of the Meuse in Namur, Damien Sonny spent his youth trying to catch fish and observing how they behave. That’s when he wasn’t watching movies by the marine ecologist Commander Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Inspired by Cousteau, who said that man’s real job was to salvage human nature, he went on to write his PhD thesis on fish downstream migration and the risks that fish encounter at industrial water intakes. From this work, Profish Technology, now 10 years old, was born.

“We developed a first technology using infrasound to deflect fish away from water intakes,” says Sonny. The company’s infrasound barrier was the first of its kind anywhere in the world, reducing fish mortality by about 80%.

Aside from achieving a world first, the timing was perfect. The EU’s Water Framework Directive, among other environmental laws around the world, obliges industry to do its part to ensure biological diversity and ensure that plants minimise their impact on fish populations. One of the largest client groups for Profish Technology is hydroelectric power plants. The company has helped find a solution to Europe’s conflicting goals of promoting hydroelectric power as a source of green energy while meeting its biodiversity goals.

“Most of the time, this renewable energy and its facilities create an obstacle to fish migration. Some fish species, like Atlantic salmon or the European eel, must migrate to the sea to accomplish their life cycle,” explains Sonny.

“This issue is touchy. On the one hand the hydroelectric sector is important to the EU strategy for achieving ambitious targets in carbon dioxide reduction, but on the other hand this activity has too significant an impact on fish biodiversity.”

That’s where Profish comes in. “All the large power companies in Europe have understood and are developing large R&D projects to combine sustainable hydropower and fish biodiversity protection, which is the position that Profish is supporting in its various projects around Europe.”

After its initial success with the infrasound technology, the company started to realise that this was not a miracle solution, and that each site of water intake had to be examined individually. The company is now repositioning itself more specifically to offer monitoring services.

These include radio tracking using tags, the automatic fish counter – essentially a tunnel with laser curtains, which makes it possible to count fish and check their direction of travel – and acoustic imaging that provides highly accurate data. Such data is of crucial value for companies when they reapply for permits.

Its base in Wallonia has given it the impetus to look for clients outside its home market to survive as a company. Aside from Belgium, Profish boasts clients in Canada, Tahiti, Brazil, Ireland and Gabon, to name just a few. And while successful from its home base, the company opened its first office abroad, in France in 2015, and in 2018 it plans to open an office in Germany.

“Our ambition is to build a network of small profitable companies each following the same business model, adapted to the specifics of each country,” says Sonny. “We have reasonable ambitions in terms of growth; we want to keep it in a controllable range.”

And in echoes of the kind of words one might have heard from Cousteau, he says: “The main ambition is to keep on making good studies, satisfy our clients, feel like we are serving an environmental cause and, most importantly, cultivate the happiness capital of each member of the company.”

Written by Emma Portier Davis