A missing alarm on a pump at the Fillmore Fish Hatchery contributed to the weekend accident that killed 180,000 rainbow trout and sent 20,000 more fish coursing into a small creek on a neighboring watercress farm, officials said this week.
The fish were lost when a recirculation pump overheated and failed Saturday night, depriving the fish of one-third of their normal water and oxygen, said James R. Adams, the hatchery's assistant manager.
The problem was compounded after suffocated trout piled up on retaining screens at the end of the hatchery's concrete-lined fish ponds. The screens eventually gave way, causing about 20,000 live fish to be swept downstream. Officials said most or all of those fish died.
The accident was discovered Sunday morning. Damage was estimated at $75,000.
The pump was the only one of four without an alarm system that alerts resident hatchery workers to take emergency procedures. Adams said it had been running round-the-clock since January, but lacked an alarm because it wasn't normally used all the time.
"In the past, we haven't had as much weight on the hatchery grounds to require the pump 24 hours a day," said Adams, who has been at the hatchery since 1980. "We should have had an alarm system, bottom line," he said.
The hatchery, one of 21 operated by the state Department of Fish and Game, has been raising trout at record levels under a "Trophy Trout" program started in January. Annual production was at an all-time high of 410,000 pounds--about 10,000 pounds above the norm.
Larger-than-normal fish of up to one pound make up one-third of the fish at the hatchery, increasing both the total weight of fish produced and the strain on the hatchery's equipment, Adams said.
Not affected in the accident was next year's distribution from February to May of fish to more than 40 lakes, streams and reservoirs in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. However, surplus distribution for the end of this year was set back. The trout lost were seven to eight inches long and were ready to be stocked.
The pump failure was the first at the hatchery but the second this year in the state. A similar incident at a Bishop hatchery killed 65,000 fish in June, said a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game.
In Fillmore, hatchery workers put in overtime Sunday and Monday, scooping dead fish out of the ponds and repairing broken screens. Most of the dead fish were buried in a pit on hatchery grounds, although at least three truckloads went to neighboring farms to be used as fertilizer.
Some workers placed sentimental value on the loss of the fish, which they raised from eggs.
"We put ourselves into it so much--it's like losing your kids," said Bob Peery, a fish and wildlife assistant.