Oregon Authorities Arrest Suspect in Illegal Poaching of Nearly 18,000 Chinook Salmon with Bleach

Oregon Authorities Arrest Suspect in Illegal Poaching of Nearly 18,000 Chinook Salmon with Bleach

Oregon City, Oregon – Authorities in Oregon say they have caught the person who killed 18,000 salmon at a fish farm this week.

Almost 18,000 young salmon died on Monday when someone broke into the Douglas County fish hatchery and put bleach into the tank. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) said this.

ODFW states, “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.”

Joshua Heckathorn, 20, of Gardiner was arrested by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) and taken to the Douglas County Jail on charges of theft, criminal trespass, and criminal mischief. The jail’s records show that Heckathorn is no longer in jail after being arrested on Tuesday. He has a court date set for May 16, 2024.

A deputy checking the area on Tuesday evening, April 23, 2024, saw a man walking south along Highway 101 near milepost 210. Shortly after, the deputy went into the hatchery and saw the same man behind a locked gate with no trespassing signs. A man named Heckathorn was caught by DCSO. He “admitted to trespassing on the property, entering a storage location, and handling the chemical bottle on Monday.”

“This case was solved through teamwork and good police work,” said Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin. The deputies did a great job, and I’m sure that the investigation will help find those guilty and hold them accountable for their actions.

The Police Department of Reedsport helped the Sheriff’s Office.

ODFW says that the DCSO and the Oregon State Police (OSP) Fish and Wildlife Division will work together to stop the theft and vandalism.

“The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has been a great partner for the OSP F and W Division,” said Levi Harris, a Sergeant in the OSP Fish and Wildlife Division. I really like how enthusiastic and professional they are. In Western Douglas County, their coastal officers have helped us solve cases and/or arrest wildlife offenders more than once.

ODFW says that person will be charged with poaching for illegally taking 17,890 Chinook salmon, which is a crime. The document says Heckathorn is being charged with giving a poisonous substance to wildlife and criminal mischief for causing more than $1,000 worth of damage or destruction to someone else’s property. It also says that Heckathorn could face damage suits and losing his fishing license for life for killing wildlife without a permit.

According to ODFW, the worst fine that can be given for illegally taking a single Chinook salmon in Oregon is $7,000. Courts can increase that amount by the number of fish that were taken, so in this case, a verdict could make the fine more than $13,000,000, which Sergeant Harris says is a huge loss for the STEP program.

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

ODFW says that Oregon lawmakers set up STEP in 1981 so that volunteers and other people could help out. “Since then, thousands of volunteers have helped Oregon’s fisheries with materials, equipment, and countless hours of time and labor,” the agency says. Volunteers with STEP fix up stream habitats, do studies, teach people about fish, and hatch and care for salmon and trout eggs.

It says that the about 18,000 fish that were lost were meant to be caught in the fall Chinook fishing in the lower Umpqua River. They were supposed to join the 60,000 other fall Chinook pre-smolts that will have their fins cut off and be released in June. Around 60,000 fall Chinook from the same group are set to be released as smolts in Winchester Bay in early October from the Elk River Hatchery.

GRWB STEP President Deborah Yates says this incident makes no sense to workers and other people who raise the fish. “Those fish become important to you. Nature does things that are hard, but that’s just how things are and they happen. You just can’t understand why someone would do something like this. That person coming in and killing the fish without any thought doesn’t make sense. We’ve spent so much time with them.

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