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Man charged with destroying 18,000 juvenile fish in Reedsport

A Gardiner man has been arrested and charged in the deliberate killing of 18,000 young salmon at a Reedsport hatchery.

On April 22, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office got a call about a break-in at the hatchery operated by the Gardiner Reedsport Winchester Bay Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP). A container of bleach had been taken from a supply shed and emptied into a rearing tank with thousands of young, pre-smolt Chinook salmon.

STEP president Deborah Yates told KLCC that a hatchery volunteer found the dead fish at feeding time, laying on the tank floor.

“Ironically, it was Earth Day,” said Yates. “We were highly concerned that it was eco-terrorists.”

On April 23, a Douglas County Sheriff’s deputy spotted 20-year-old Joshua Alexander Heckathorn in the area, then later inside the hatchery. According to the DCSO, Heckathorn was questioned, and admitted to trespassing on the property and handling the chemical bottle. He was taken in and charged with burglary, criminal trespass, and criminal mischief.

Yates said the acts eliminated a quarter of the pre-smolts at the hatchery.

“We have another 60,000 pre-smolts at the Elk River hatchery in Port Orford, and they will hold those until September when we will get them back as smolts,” she said.

Yates added that before this incident, the nonprofit hatchery would have provided anglers up in Alaska and British Columbia with potentially hundreds of Chinook to catch, if not more. So besides the destruction of wildlife, the poisoning of the fish is an economic loss as well.

“We will fin-clip the remaining pre-smolts that we have in late May. And then we will release them into Winchester Bay in early June. They'll hang out in the estuary for a little while, then they’ll go up to Alaska where they'll grow into adults,” explained Yates.

The adult salmon will then come back to the Lower Umpqua River after three to six years.

Yates said STEP volunteers have worked hundreds of hours to care for the young salmon, and are at a loss to understand why they were destroyed. She added that the community response has been overwhelming, with many people angry and “devastated” at the loss of the fish.

“People are sending money to upgrade our security system, and donating things like cameras and all sorts of stuff,” she said.

Yates said they will definitely work to improve security at the hatchery, but would not go into detail what measures would be taken. She said STEP tries to release 170,000 pre-smolts and smolts into Winchester Bay every year.

“And we only get a return rate of 1% to 3% of the fish coming back from Alaska because they're caught by commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen,” Yates explained. “So this (loss of) 18,000 fish is a significant number to the returning fish to us. So we will notice it.”

In a release, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office thanked the Reedsport Police Department for their assistance. And the level of damage done to the hatchery’s young Chinook population has elevated the case to one of poaching, making it a matter for the Oregon State Police’s Division of Fish and Wildlife to investigate.

On a Facebook post, Gardiner Reedsport Winchester Bay STEP said specific charges will include Unlawful Taking Chinook Salmon for 17,890 fish, which raises the charge to a Class C felony. Additionally, Heckathorn faces charges of Making a Toxic Substance Available to Wildlife, a Class A Misdemeanor. The criminal mischief charge is of the first degree, for property damage surpassing $1,000.

Additional penalties might include a lifetime angling license suspension and damage suits for the unlawful killing of wildlife.

STEP further said that the maximum civil penalty in Oregon for illegal take of a single Chinook salmon is $750, but courts have the authority to multiply that amount by the number of fish taken. That means the amount could potentially increase to more than $13 million, “although it is unlikely to elevate to that level.”

Heckathorn was lodged at the Douglas County Jail, and has since been released. He has a court appearance on May 16. No motive has been given yet for the vandalism of the facility and destruction of the fish.

"The killing of these fish is a real blow to the STEP Program Volunteers, ODFW, fishermen, and the community as a whole," said OSP F&W Division Sergeant Levi Harris in a press release. "In my 25 years as a game warden, this is one of the most senseless acts I have seen."

Copyright 2024, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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