In his 19 years working at Georgia’s Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery, Kelly Taylor says he’s never had a problem with criminals. That changed when he arrived at work Monday morning.
“Sometime between 2:30 and 6:30, somebody cut off our main water supply to the hatchery,” Taylor, the hatchery’s project manager, said Wednesday. “It’s nothing I’ve ever worried about.”
An estimated 51,000 rainbow trout were killed, costing the northeast Georgia hatchery around $61,000, Taylor said. Those numbers could change when employees take inventory next week, he said.
With a turn of a wheel, the hatchery’s flowing water was cut off. But thanks to a tree branch, the water gate wasn’t able to close entirely, Taylor said.
“It could’ve been a whole lot worse,” he said. “We could’ve lost the whole hatchery that morning.”
The hatchery is home to more than a million fish ranging in size from 2 inches long to 12 or 14 inches. The fish killed were between 6 and 10 inches long and some would’ve been released this week or next, Taylor said.
The Fannin County Sheriff’s Office is investigating, and the person responsible could face federal charges because the hatchery is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Chattahoochee hatchery, located on Rock Creek, is one of four in Georgia that keep local waters stocked.
“All of the trout you find swimming in North Georgia came from these hatcheries,” Taylor said.
The hatchery, built in 1937, produces mainly rainbows for recreational fishing. Streams and lakes across North Georgia are stocked from March to September with the hatchery’s fish.
The Chattahoochee hatchery has 46 “raceways” for fish and 12 were affected. With little water, the fish began dying and blocking the raceway screens which funnel water to the next raceway.
But, it’s been a good year so far for growing fish: a relatively mild winter and plenty of rain. And with three other hatcheries, there will still be plenty to catch with fishing poles.
Investigators hope to find the person responsible for shutting off the water, but have few clues. Located outside of the small town of Suches, the hatchery is five miles inside the Chattahoochee National Forest — not a typical overnight hangout spot There isn’t a security camera, and the valve is outside of a fence that anyone could access, Taylor said. It’s now locked.
The fish paid the ultimate price, but taxpayers will foot the bill unless a suspect is caught.
“If they find who did it, they will try to get retribution for the fish,” Taylor said.
A community group is offering a $1,500 reward to find the person responsible for shutting off the water supply.