Enhancing fisheries resilience and hydropower development: the road to sustainable energy-water-food NEXUS in Brazil

In Brazil, inland fisheries supplement livelihoods and provide an important source of protein for low-income communities. At the same time, to meet unprecedented demands for energy the development of hydroelectric power has resulted in more than 80% of electricity consumed being produced by this means, with plans to develop this resource further. While hydropower reduces poverty and increase quality of life, the impact on fisheries and the low-income people they support will be damaging if not managed sustainably, thus reflecting a classic Energy-Water-Food NEXUS challenge and a potential source of environmental conflict. This project will establish strong interdisciplinary collaborations involving early career researchers in Brazil and the UK through the establishment of a hub, in Minas Gerais, to develop solutions to global challenges that include sustainable energy for all, food security, and infrastructure. Activities will focus on transferring experience gained at the University of Southampton Strategic Research Group in NEXUS Science to quantify the impacts of large fish mortality events at existing dams (e.g. barotrauma), and develop fishing engineering solutions (e.g. behavioural deterrents using acoustics; optimisation modelling for decision-making and decommissioning of dams) to protect fisheries at both existing and planned sites. Successful solutions will bring positive socio-economic benefits, through reducing negative environmental impacts of the hydropower industry and consequently protecting fisheries resources. Impacts will also be generated through: i) the development of Brazilian capability in fishing engineering and ii) the transfer of tools and technology to partner organisations. Workshops will transfer results across organizations (e.g. energy industry, regulatory agencies, SME’s) and stimulate discussion aiming at improving and developing policies in Brazil to enhance sustainable resource development.

Project objectives:

  1. Through using a state-of-the-art pressure chamber at the University of São João del-Rei (UFSJ) in Minas Gerais state, the project will quantify the impact of barotrauma associated with passage of commercially important fish through turbines/spillways.
  2. Translate techniques developed at the University of Southampton (UoS) to test, under laboratory conditions, the deterrent effects of acoustic stimuli to repel test species away from hazardous areas (e.g. turbine intakes).
  3. Develop a proof of concept optimisation planning tool to identify the best set of dam construction and decommissioning sites in a case study river network (São Francisco River in Minas Gerais state) to maximise hydropower generation potential while minimising negative ecosystem impacts.
  4. Hold a series of workshops to facilitate knowledge transfer and training of early career researchers, engineers, and employees of SMEs in fishing engineering and to discuss policies to enhance fisheries conservation.

This work is supported by an Institutional Links grant, ID 332396528, under the Newton-Brazil Fund partnership. The grant is funded by the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Universidade Federal de São João del-Rei and delivered by the British Council. For further information, please visit www.newtonfund.ac.uk.

Ongoing research:


Research into the impact of hydropower passage is being undertaken at the Federal University of São João Del-Rei (UFSJ), Brazil. Visiting researchers from the University of Southampton, including Dr Jim Kerr and PhD students Amelia Holgate, Jack Daniels and Lewis Dolman are working with Dr Andrey Castro and Nathalia Melo at his lab at UFSJ.

Fish experience rapid decompression during passage through hydropower turbines that can cause a multitude of injuries. Collectively referred to as barotrauma, these injuries can result in a high proportion of mortality. By simulating rapid decompression using a purpose built hypo-hyperbaric pressure chamber researchers are attempting to define a threshold ratio of pressure change at which these injuries start to occur for multiple species. These results will help in the mitigation, management and design of hydropower facilities to reduce the impacts of turbine passage within the São Francisco River basin.

Three Pacu in the hypo-hyperbaric chamber during a study to investigate the impact of rapid decompression.

Dr Jim Kerr undertaking a necropsy on a fish exposed to barotrauma.

Barotrauma injury – emboli in the gills.

In April 2019, PhD students Lewis Dolman, Amelia Holgate and Jack Daniels travelled to the Federal University of São João del Rei to continue the ongoing research into the effects of rapid decompression on fish. Piracanjuba (Brycon orbignyanus) were subjected to rapid pressure changes using a hypo-hyperbaric chamber to simulate the conditions experienced during turbine passage. Barotrauma injuries were identified by necropsy, and these data are being used to identify a threshold ratio of pressure change at which various injuries occur. This information can be used to improve management techniques at hydropower facilities to reduce the impact of turbine passage on this economically important and endangered species.

Collecting the Piracanjuba from a local fishery.

Piracanjuba in the hypo-hyperbaric chamber.

Jack Daniels undertaking a necropsy on a fish exposed to rapid decompression.

Optimising hydropower and river biodiversity

As part of the EWF Nexus Brazil project researchers are developing a spatial optimisation model for locating dams to balance trade-offs between hydropower generation and migratory fish species richness. The model incorporates two special features. First, it is tailored to the dispersal of tropical migratory fishes, which require long, unimpeded river stretches to complete their life-cycle. Second, it combines decisions about dam placement and removal, thus facilitating opportunities for hydropower offsetting. The model has been applied to the São Francisco River basin, Brazil, an area of hydropower-freshwater biodiversity conflict.

Graphic representation of prioritisation options in the São Francisco River basin.

Graphic representation of prioritisation options in the São Francisco River basin.

Response of Brazilian fish species to sound

The use of sound to attract or repel fish from beneficial/hazardous areas, i.e. bypass channels or hydropower turbines, is used worldwide with variable success. The efficacy of acoustic guidance systems is species specific and requires detailed knowledge of the physiology and behavioural response of target species. As part of the EWF Nexus Brazil project researchers from the University of Southampton and Federal University of São João del-Rei are investigating the response of Brazilian fish species to sound.

Researchers investigation the behavioural response of fish to sound in Brazil.

Development of tensile strength machine

As part of the EWF Nexus project researchers are trialling a low-cost tensile strength machine to test the strength of fish swim bladders to infer susceptibility to barotrauma.

Dr Frances Davis discussing the low-cost tensile strength apparatus with visiting academics.

Workshops / presentations

Workshops and presentations have been organised by the project partners to enable the international sharing of knowledge.

Researchers during international meeting to discuss barotrauma impacts on fish.

Barotrauma workshop held at the University of Southampton, 2019.

Dr Jim Kerr presenting his research as part of the AMBER project to researchers at the Federal University of São João Del-Rei.

Project partners:





The Newton Fund

The Newton Fund builds research and innovation partnerships with 18 partner countries to support their economic development and social welfare, and to develop their research and innovation capacity for long-term sustainable growth. It has a total UK Government investment of £735 million up until 2021, with matched resources from the partner countries.

The Newton Fund is managed by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and delivered through 15 UK delivery partners, which include the Research Councils, the UK Academies, the British Council, Innovate UK and the Met Office.

For further information visit the Newton Fund website (www.newtonfund.ac.uk) and follow via Twitter: @NewtonFund.