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Reedsport hatchery 'disappointed' with sentence of man behind mass deaths of juvenile Chinook

Young fish.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Pacific region.
A juvenile Chinook salmon.

An Oregon man convicted of killing 18,000 pre-smolt salmon with bleach is now out of jail. 

On April 21, the Gardiner Reedsport Winchester Bay Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) hatchery was broken into. The next morning, a hatchery worker found thousands of dead fish settled on the bottom of a holding tank.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said a deputy found 20-year-old Joshua A. Heckathorn of Gardiner wandering along Highway 101, and then again later inside a gate at the hatchery site. Police said Heckathorn admitted to trespassing on the property, entering a storage location, and handling the bottle that contained bleach.

After Heckathorn was arrested, he missed his initial court appearance and then a second one, prompting the judge to issue a bench warrant. 

Heckathorn was brought in a few days later and eventually convicted on multiple charges, including burglary and criminal mischief. 

Tank of dead fish.
Gardiner Reedsport Winchester Bay Salmon Trout Enhancement Program
Photos taken by hatchery staff show dead pre-molt Chinook salmon after bleach was dumped into their holding tank. Roughly 18,000 fish were poisoned and were removed from the facility.

On June 7, he was ordered to pay $15,000 in restitution and to avoid contact with the STEP hatchery, and all hatcheries within Oregon, unless with written permission by the Douglas County Court or his probation officer. 

Heckathorn was to serve 30 days in Douglas County jail, but records show he was booked on May 23 then released on June 14. His fishing license has been suspended for three years, the same period he’ll remain under supervised probation. He’s also been ordered to stay off alcohol and illegal substances. 

In a Facebook post shortly after Heckathorn’s arrest, STEP said the maximum civil penalty in Oregon for illegal take of a single Chinook salmon is $750, and the courts had the authority to multiply that amount by the number of fish taken. That meant the potential fine against Heckathorn could have exceeded $13 million, though STEP also admitted such an amount was unlikely. 

Deborah Yates, president of STEP, told KLCC that she’s disappointed with the outcome and Heckathorn’s sentencing.

"It really was just a slap on the hand, kinda like ‘Oh don't do that again.’ At least they could have given him 100 hours of community service," she said. "Something to let him know he did something wrong."

Yates added that Heckathorn’s actions not only destroyed 18,000 young fish just before their release, but also hurt the livelihoods of fishing communities across Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia. 

“It’s just a loss, a sad loss,” said Yates. “You don’t rebound from that.” 

The STEP Hatchery is proceeding with operations, which included the recent release of 60,000 pre-smolt salmon into waterways that lead to the Pacific Ocean. 

And after the incident was reported, Yates says several generous people helped them fund security upgrades to the hatchery to prevent further break-ins. 

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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