The Columbia River-based U.S. Coast Guard crews responded to three suspected hoax distress calls within several hours last weekend.

The agency estimates that more than four hours of searching cost taxpayers about $8,000.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn said the sector responded to five similar calls earlier this summer.

In response to the high number of calls, the Coast Guard offers a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of anyone responsible for making a false distress or hoax call to the Coast Guard.

One of Sunday’s calls was traced to an area on the river that was about five miles west of Clatskanie. The other two were traced to the area of Hayden Island, near Portland.

Sector Columbia River launched an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Air Station Astoria and a 25-foot response boat crew from Station Portland in response to the calls, searching for more than four hours.

Sector Columbia River received a call stating “Need help,” on VHF Channel 16, at approximately 4 p.m., but received no replies to subsequent callouts. The call was traced to an area between Puget and Wallace islands on the Columbia River, five miles west of Clatskanie.

The sector issued an Urgent Marine Information Broadcast to notify mariners in the area and launched an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Air Station Astoria. The aircrew searched the area for two hours without finding any sign of distress.

At 6:30 p.m., the sector received another call “Help, Mayday,” and yet another stating “My boat is sinking” at approximately 6:50 p.m. Both calls were traced to the vicinity of Hayden Island.

In both cases, the Coast Guard received no reply to callouts and issued Urgent Marine Information Broadcasts. A 25-foot response boat crew from Station Portland and a Coast Guard auxiliary boat searched the area for two hours with no sign of distress.

When the Coast Guard dispatches vessels and aircraft in cases of false distress, it not only drains limited resources but needlessly puts our personnel at risk, officers said. Making a false distress call is a federal felony with a maximum penalty of five to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, $8,000 civil penalty and the possible reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.

Boaters are reminded that they are responsible for the safety and actions of their passengers and are encouraged to educate them about the proper use of emergency equipment including a marine VHF radio. Often passengers, especially children, may not understand the consequences of playing on the radio and reporting false distress.

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