Man faces potential $13 million fine after using bleach to kill 18,000 salmon

Editorial Staff

Joshua Heckathorn trespassed into an Oregon hatchery, pouring bleach into a tank, killing 18,000 Chinook salmon.

A 22-year-old man has been arrested for allegedly causing the deaths of approximately 18,000 young Chinook salmon at a volunteer-run hatchery in Douglas County.

In a Facebook post, the hatchery said someone broke in by destroying several door locks and then dumped a gallon of bleach into one of the rearing tanks.

On Tuesday, April 23, 2024, around 6:30 p.m., a deputy patrolling the area observed a male walking south along Highway 101 near milepost 210. A short time later the deputy walked into the hatchery and observed that same male behind the locked gate and no trespassing signs, according to police.

The male, identified as 20-year-old Gardiner resident Joshua Alexander Heckathorn, was contacted and interviewed by the deputy. During the interview, Heckathorn admitted to trespassing on the property and entering a storage location and handling the chemical bottle on Monday.

Deborah Yates, the president of the hatchery, is devastated.

“I’ve seen nature do some really horrific things, but I’ve never seen a person do this. We call it murder,” she said.

Heckathorn faces multiple charges including burglary, criminal trespass, criminal mischief, and is expected to be charged with poaching. Additional charges may include Making a Toxic Substance Available to Wildlife, a Class A misdemeanor, and First Degree Criminal Mischief for property damage exceeding $1,000.

On Wednesday, April 24th STEP volunteers began the arduous task of removing the dead fish and cleaning the tank.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, in collaboration with the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division, is investigating the incident. They are also assessing the financial penalties Heckathorn will face, which could include a lifetime ban on angling licenses and significant fines for the unlawful killing of wildlife.

Authorities noted that the civil penalty for illegally taking or killing a single Chinook salmon can reach up to $750 per fish, potentially elevating Heckathorn’s fines to over $13 million, although such a high penalty is considered unlikely.

This incident represents a substantial loss to the Gardiner Reedsport Winchester Bay Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP).

“The economic driver of these fish is huge,” Yates said. “This is not little. This is being considered the biggest poaching incident in Oregon history, I think. It’s monstrous.”


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