Oregon Man Poisons 20,000 Chinook Salmon Smolt with Bleach

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An Oregon man was recently arrested after breaking into a hatchery and killing tens of thousands of chinook salmon smolt. On April 22, the Gardiner Reedsport Winchester Bay Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) reported that someone had broken into its hatchery during the night. 

“What would possess someone to do something like this?” wrote the organization in a Facebook post. “Last night someone burglarized the STEP hatchery, breaking into the hatchery fish food storage room. For what? Who knows. But what we do know is they took a gallon of liquid bleach and dumped it into one of our rearing tanks. The results are the two pictures seen here: 20,000 dead Chinook Salmon pre-smolt cover the bottom of their rearing tank.”

According to STEP, the dead smolt would have turned into 200 to 400 fully grown salmon for anglers to catch while migrating up Winchester Bay and the Umpqua River in the next 3 to 4 years. The Douglas County Sheriff and Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife unit promptly investigated the crime—and soon identified a key suspect. On Tuesday, April 23, a sheriff’s deputy was patrolling the area near the hatchery and saw a man walking along the highway. The deputy observed the man a second time behind the hatchery’s locked gate. 

 In an ensuing interview, Joshua Heckathorn, 20, of Gardiner admitted to trespassing and poisoning the hatchery smolt with fish—though it remains unclear why he committed the acts. He was promptly jailed and charged with Burglary II, Criminal Trespass, and Criminal Mischief, and he’ll likely face additional poaching charges.

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

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“You get attached to those fish,” added Gardiner Reedsport Winchester Bay STEP President Deborah Yates. “When nature does something, it’s crushing … 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.”

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