The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has announced an unfortunate loss of around 18,000 young salmon in a vandalism incident in Douglas County.

One hatchery tank lost in Douglas County STEP facility

The incident happened in Reedsport, at the Gardinier, Reedsport, and Winchester Bay (GRWB) Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) hatchery, sometime between the night of Sunday, April 21, and early morning Monday, April 22.

The hatchery initially reported the incident on April 24. The dead fish were discovered by a STEP volunteer who had arrived to feed the pre-smolt at the facility. A gallon of bleach had been poured into rearing tank number 5, killing all Fall Chinook Salmon Pre-Smolt.

The dead fish had to be collected and siphoned from the tank and put into plastic totes, as they could not be dumped in the creek or on the ground due to the poisoning.

Below: GRWB Hatchery Manager Tim Hooper shovels the dead pre-smolts from the bottom of the rearing pond. The fish will be frozen for future evidence in the criminal case.

Volunteer cleaning dead young salmon from floor
Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife / Canva

Suspect admitted to the trespass and vandalism

The suspect, Joshua Heckathorn of Gardiner, has been arrested and placed at the Douglas County Jail on charges of Burglary II, Criminal Trespass, and Criminal Mischief.

According to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office:

...on Apr. 23, a DCSO patrol deputy saw Heckathorn walking south along Highway 101, then encountered him again that evening behind a locked gate in the hatchery facility. Heckathorn admitted to trespassing on the property, entering a storage location, and handling the chemical bottle on Monday.

The poaching charges will include "Unlawful Taking Chinook Salmon" for 17,890 fish, which makes the charge a class C felony. ODFW also states that "Heckathorn faces charges of Making a Toxic Substance Available to Wildlife, which is a Class A Misdemeanor; and Criminal Mischief 1st Degree (Damaging or destroying property of another in an amount exceeding $1,000). Additional penalties could include a lifetime angling license suspension and damage suits for unlawful killing of wildlife."

The illegal take of a single Chinook salmon in Oregon carries a civil penalty of up to $750 - making the potential judgment over $13 million.

STEP program mourns smolt loss

OSP F&W Sergeant Levi Harris stated, "In my 25 years as a game warden, this is one of the most senseless acts I have seen."

The STEP Program, established in 1981, connects the Oregon community with restoration efforts for salmon and trout populations in Oregon waters. Volunteers participate in a variety of ways, donating their time to habitat restoration, public education, research, and hatchery processes. The video below offers a quick overview.

Deborah Yates, President of the GRWB STEP program, added in the ODFW press release:

You get attached to those fish. When nature does something, it's crushing. But it's nature and it happens. 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.


ODFW encourages anyone who knows, or suspects, other crimes against fish wildlife or habitat to report it to the Turn In Poachers (TIP) line, available via 1-800-452-7888, *OSP (*677) from a mobile phone, or email to

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