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Oregon man could face $13 million fine for pouring bleach into salmon tank, killing nearly 18,000 fish

The man may have to pay poaching charges for each fish he killed at the state hatchery, which raises the threatened fish for release.
A winter-run Chinook salmon.
Posted at 10:28 PM, May 01, 2024

A 20-year-old man could face a more than $13 million fine after breaking into an Oregon hatchery and pouring bleach into a rearing pond last week, killing nearly 18,000 baby salmon, according to local authorities.

The incident occurred on April 22 at the Gardiner, Reedsport and Winchester Bay Salmon Trout Enhancement Program hatchery. The volunteer-run program works to rehabilitate natural habitats and preserve biodiversity for salmon in the Pacific Northwest, where multiple populations of the fish are considered threatened or endangered.

One of those populations includes Chinook salmon — a species considered "vital" to the region as a food source for its diverse wildlife. This classification means the suspect's crime, which officials said may have started as burglary and vandalism, evolved into a "significant poaching incident," according to Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division Sergeant Levi Harris.

The suspect, Joshua Alexander Heckathorn, was taken into custody on April 23 after a Douglas County Sheriff's Office deputy spotted him behind a locked gate and no-trespassing signs at the GRWB STEP hatchery. He later admitted to the deputy that he trespassed on the property and handled the chemical bottle, DCSO said.

The sheriff's office charged Heckathorn with burglary II, criminal trespass and criminal mischief. But OSP F&W added charges of unlawfully taking Chinook salmon — the amount of which, 17,890, raises the charge to a Class C felony — a misdemeanor charge of making a toxic substance available to wildlife, and criminal mischief in the first degree for damaging property exceeding $1,000.

Oregon's Department of Fish & Wildlife says the maximum civil penalty for illegally taking one Chinook salmon is $750 in the state, but courts can multiply that for each fish, meaning Heckaworth's total penalty could add up to more than $13.4 million, Harris said. However, the department says that amount is unlikely.

Still, Harris says the fish killings, which he views as "one of the most senseless acts" he's seen in his 25 years in the role, deals a "real blow" to the STEP program and the community as a whole.

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The fish lost to the crime were supposed to join 60,000 young Chinook salmon to be released into the Umpqua River estuary in June. Each year, the GRWB STEP program aims to raise around 170,000 young salmon for release into the estuary, which typically produces 2,800 adult Chinook salmon, the hatchery's website states. The salmon killed in the crime would have added 200 to 400 fully-grown salmon to the population.

Once in the estuary, young salmon will grow for a year or so before making their way to the ocean, where they'll spend an average of four years. Then they'll return to their home stream as adults to reproduce and die or be caught.

GRWB STEP says its additions to the young population create a boost in "much-needed revenue to local economies," as fishermen have more of a harvest when the salmon return as adults. But the program also ensures the harvest doesn't exceed fish populations' reproductive abilities.

And with all their work to create a habitable environment for the species — threatened by habitat loss, overuse of water resources and more — volunteers who raise the salmon at GRWB STEP say they can't comprehend the recent loss.

"You get attached to those fish," the program's president, Deborah Yates, said. "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."