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Reedsport: Vandal Charged After Killing 18,00 Fish with Bleach at Oregon Coast Hatchery

Published 4/27/24 at 6:25 a.m.
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection - Andre' Hagestedt

(Reedsport, Oregon) – A puzzling, senseless act of vandalism at a Reedsport hatchery resulted in the death of 18,000 young salmon after the suspect poured bleach into a tank.(Graphic / photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

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Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) said the suspect dumped bleach into one of four tanks at the Gardiner, Reedsport, and Winchester Bay (GRWB) Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) hatchery in Reedsport.

The incident happened overnight n the early hours of Sunday, April 21. On April 23, Douglas County Sheriff's Office (DCSO) arrested a suspect, 20-year-old Joshua Heckathorn.

Employees / volunteers with the hatchery talked about the incident on Monday morning.

“Sometime during the Sunday night of April 21st or early morning hours of Monday morning vandals broke into the GRWB STEP hatchery facility,” the organization said in a blog post. “They destroyed or damaged several door locks and broke into the salmon food storage room. They then took a gallon of bleach and poured it into rearing tank number 5 killing all 20,000 Fall Chinook Salmon Pre-smolt that were being raised there. The crime was discovered Monday morning when a STEP volunteer arrived to feed the pre-smolt.”

Deputies arrested the suspect after he again made it inside the locked gate of the hatchery. The agency said a patrol deputy spotted Heckathorn on April 23, walking south along Highway 101. Later that evening, deputies found him behind the gate, and eventually Heckathorn admitted to trespassing on the property two days earlier, as well as handling the chemicals while there.

He was lodged in the county jail on charges of Burglary II, Criminal Trespass and Criminal Mischief. Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division – including Sergeant Levi Harris - is now also working on the case, which they say adds a poaching charge.

Courtesy STEP hatchery

“Poaching charges will include Unlawful Taking Chinook Salmon for 17,890 fish, which raised the charge to a Class C felony,” said ODFW. “In addition, Heckathorn faces charges of Making a Toxic Substance Available to Wildlife, which is a Class A Misdemeanor; and Criminal Mischief 1st Degree (Damaging or destroying property of another in an amount exceeding $1,000). Additional penalties could include a lifetime angling license suspension and damage suits for unlawful killing of wildlife.” is reporting that while Heckathorn was being interviewed by the DCSO, he was shaking, sweating and even puking at one point.

Sergeant Harris said through ODFW that a single, illegal take of a Chinook salmon can carry a $750 penalty in Oregon. The judgment in this case could be over $13 million based on the number of fish killed. While the case is not likely to get to that level, ODFW said it represents a great loss to the STEP program in Reedsport.

The maximum civil penalty in Oregon for illegal take of a single Chinook salmon is $750. 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 $13 million, according to Sergeant Harris. Although it is unlikely to elevate to that level, the case represents a significant loss to the STEP program.

“In my 25 years as a game warden, this is one of the most senseless acts I have seen,” Sergeant Harris said.

The loss is felt deeply by those volunteers working the hatchery: these 18,000 fish were scheduled to be released into the wild in June, according to Deborah Yates, President of the GRWB STEP program.

“You get attached to those fish,” Yates said through ODFW. “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.”

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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