‘Senseless’ Vandal Poisons 18,000 Salmon in Oregon Fish Hatchery

by Vern Evans

An Oregon man faces a litany of criminal charges, potentially $13 million in fines, and the wrath of the state’s salmon advocates after a deplorable act of vandalism that left roughly 18,000 hatchery fish dead.

On Tuesday, Joshua Heckathorn, of Gardiner, was arrested by deputies with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, who found him behind a locked gate at the Reedsport fish hatchery. Officials say Heckathorn broke into the hatchery, where he poured liquid bleach into one of four rearing ponds that held thousands of young salmon destined for local rivers. When hatchery workers arrived to assess the damages, they counted 17,890 dead Chinook salmon fry, according to a press release from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The agency says the mass poaching event represents a “significant loss” to the state’s Salmon Trout Enhancement Program, which helps improve the fisheries in Oregon’s rivers by rearing and stocking hatchery salmon to offset declines in wild fish returns. The fish that Heckathorn poisoned earlier this week would have contributed to the Umpqua River’s fall Chinook run, according to ODFW.

The loss is a blow to Oregon’s salmon fishermen. It’s also devastating for the hard-working volunteers and fisheries biologists who helped raise the fish. These salmon advocates have witnessed other hatchery catastrophes wrought by floods, power outages, and the like, but they have a hard time understanding the reasoning behind Heckathorn’s actions.  

“When nature does something [like this], it’s crushing. But it’s nature and it happens,” local STEP president Deborah Yates said on Thursday. “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 CCSO says Heckathorn admitted to trespassing on the property and handling the chemical bottle when confronted by deputies. He was taken to the Douglas County Jail and booked on charges of burglary, criminal trespass, and criminal mischief. The sheriff’s office is now collaborating with ODFW and the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division.

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Because of the sheer number of fish that died, the poaching charge of unlawful take of Chinook salmon was elevated to a felony. Heckathorn also faces misdemeanor charges of making a toxic substance available to wildlife and criminal mischief. Additional damage suits could be filed as well, ODFW explains, and Heckathorn could have his fishing privileges suspended for life.

The real kicker is the fines and restitution costs, as Oregon imposes a maximum civil penalty of $750 for the illegal take of a single Chinook salmon. If courts multiply that amount by the number of fish Heckathorn poisoned — which they are authorized to do — the total fines could amount to more than $13 million. OSP sergeant Levi Harris says this is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean the vandal will get off easy.

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

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