A handful of citizens, legislators and wildlife officials watched Wednesday as thousands of tiny, baby fish were released into the Ogeechee River.
The move was part of a restocking plan to replenish the river’s fish population after a massive fish kill in May. About 38,000 fish of multiple species died from columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress.
Many feel the “environmental stress” was caused by improper discharge of effluent by King America Finishing, a textiles treatment plant located along the river near Dover.
The Environmental Protection Division issued a consent order last month ruling that the company must pay $1 million in environmental improvements to the river, which does not include restocking. The consent order follows an EPD investigation that found King America Finishing in violation of its permits regarding testing and discharging effluent into the river.
According to Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Fisheries Manager Tim Barrett, about 158,000 bluegill, 175,000 redbreast and 500 bass were released into the waters at the Highway 24 Oliver Bridge landing, on the Bulloch County side of the river.
The baby fish were pumped from a truck directly into the river, except for the bass, which were larger and were released by net.
Not all the young fish are expected to live; as a matter of fact, some did not survive the transport.
“We’re stocking small fish, and you expect to lose a lot,” he said. “That’s why you stock so many.”
Hopefully, enough fish will grow and multiply, replacing many of the fish that were killed last summer, he said.
Another restocking is planned for November at another site.
The fish came from a number of Georgia hatcheries, including Burton Hatcheries in North Georgia and Bowen’s Mill Hatchery in Fitzgerald, he said.
Although the EPD consent order specified that the $1 million to be spent on environmental improvements does not include restocking efforts, Barrett said that doesn’t mean King America Finishing won’t help pay for the cost.
“We’re still working on the funding,” he said. “That plane hasn’t landed yet. We’re looking at several different things” to fund the effort.
Local legislators, including state Rep. Jan Tankersley and Sen. Jack Hill, were present at the restocking.
“The DNR did a great job after the fish kill in capturing eggs …” to raise fish for restocking, he said. Hopefully, the effort will help in “rebuilding the structure of the river. They plan to put larger fish into the river when the water level is up.”
Hill said he does not blame citizens for not trusting the state government after the fish kill incident.
The EPD investigation found King America Finishing had been dumping effluent in violation of its permit since 2006 — at least five years, without the violations being detected. Many, including Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp, question why the violations were not found earlier. She said complaints had been lodged in 2006 by that organization and since then by citizens.
“There is a lot to be done to restore people’s confidence,” Hill said. “People have lost confidence in the state, and it is up to us to rebuild that confidence. I don’t blame people for not having much confidence right now.”