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Dead rainbow trout are seen in a raceway at Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery the morning of June 4, 2018. Officials believe someone came onto the property and cut off the main water supply line to the hatchery. (Contributed photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

This story was updated June 6, 2018, at 11:59 p.m.

An estimated 50,000 rainbow trout being raised at the Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery were killed early on June 4 when someone came onto the property and cut off the main water supply line, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and hatchery project leader Kelly Taylor.

The rainbow trout were scheduled to be released this year in streams and rivers across North Georgia.

"When you come in and see all those dead fish in the bottom it looks bad," Taylor said.

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Dead rainbow trout are seen in a raceway at Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery the morning of June 4, 2018. Officials believe someone came onto the property and cut off the main water supply line to the hatchery. (Contributed photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

However, he is hopeful that the incident won't have a major impact on plans to restock the fish. The hatchery is one of three across the state taking part in a program to replenish rainbow trout in Georgia. The hatcheries have had a "great year this year," Taylor said, so he believes the program still will be able to adequately stock the region.

Dan Chapman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the problem could have been much worse. The fish killed were only a fraction of those at the hatchery, and a tree branch got stuck in the water supply gate, allowing some water to continue flowing through, he said.

A volunteer who lives on the property made his rounds at about 2 a.m. and everything appeared normal, according to Fannin County Sheriff Dane Kirby. When employees arrived later that morning, they noticed the valve located along Rock Creek Road had been turned off and the fish had died.

The hatchery is on federal property, making the offense a federal crime. The Fannin County Sheriff's Department is investigating, and Taylor expects the state to prosecute and try to recoup its losses if someone is convicted. However, the sheriff said there are no leads.

"We don't have anywhere to go with it, honestly," Kirby said. "We just don't know what happened: if it was kids that were playing, messing with it and got the handle down and couldn't get it back up or what happened. We may not ever know. Someone coming forward and talking may be the only way for us to know."

The fish were kept outside in 12 flow-through systems, called raceways. The raceways are outside of the main fence surrounding the property in a separate, fenced-in area with a gate. However, the gate was not locked on the morning of the incident.

"It wasn't locked this time, but I've been here 19 years and never had anything like this," Taylor said.

The estimated cost of damage is $61,000. That preliminary total includes the work that went into raising and storing the fish. There will be a more thorough study done next week that is expected to produce a more accurate estimate.

The 150-member Friends of Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery group has been in contact with Taylor to see how it can assist. Members are planning to contribute money toward a reward for anyone who comes forward with information.

"I was a hatchery manager for 20-plus years, and you worry something like this could happen," Friends group president Roger Schulz said. "There's a lot of things when you have water running that could create problems. There's only so much you can do, but we don't have 24-hour security, so you try to do the best you can."

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook @ChattanoogaOutdoors.

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