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About 18,000 salmon fry lost after act of vandalism in Oregon

April 30, 2024  By Hatchery International staff

GRWB Hatchery Manager Tim Hooper shovels the dead pre-smolts from the bottom of the rearing pond. The fish will be frozen for future evidence in the criminal case. (Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Nearly 18,000 salmon died after a man allegedly poured bleach into a Douglas County fish hatchery tank in Oregon state, USA.

Douglas County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) deputies arrested Joshua Heckathorn, 20, of Gardiner, and charged him with Burglary II, Criminal Trespass and Criminal Mischief. 

A DCSO patrol deputy claimed to see Heckathorn walking south along Highway 101, then encountered him again that evening behind a locked gate in the hatchery facility.

A press release from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife states that what may have started as vandalism evolved into poaching with the illegal killing of fish in one of four tanks at the Gardiner, Reedsport, and Winchester Bay (GRWB) Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) hatchery in Reedsport. The STEP Program was created in 1981, to give volunteers and others passionate about fish a way to contribute their time and effort. 


“You get attached to those fish,” said Deborah Yates, president of the GRWB STEP program, in a statement. “When nature does something, it’s crushing. But it’s nature and it happens. But when someone comes in and does something like this, you can’t wrap your head around it. We have so many hours wrapped up in those fish, to have someone come in so cavalier, and kill them, it doesn’t make sense.”

The maximum civil penalty in Oregon for illegal take of a single Chinook salmon is US$750. According to Sergeant Levi Harris of Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division, courts have the authority to multiply that amount by the number of fish taken, with a judgement in this case potentially raising the amount to over US$13 million.

“The killing of these fish is a real blow to the STEP program volunteers, ODFW, fishermen, and the community as a whole,” said Harris. “In my 25 years as a game warden, this is one of the most senseless acts I have seen.”

The estimated 18,000 fish lost contribute to the lower Umpqua River fall Chinook fishery and would have joined approximately 60,000 other fall Chinook pre-smolts that will be fin clipped and released in June. 

“The volunteers have spent hundreds of hours raising those fish,” Yates said, “It’s an incredible time investment, and they mean a lot to people.”

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