Security guard Vance Bretz got a call over the weekend about a dead pelican on the seawall of the Venture Out Resort in Cudjoe Key.
“The whole length of his pouch was cut,” Bretz said.
Although Bretz had never seen such an attack before, pelicans are once again being targeted in the Keys.
In recent weeks, more than a dozen brown pelicans have been found with their pouches slashed, some in Summerland Key and others in Cudjoe Key. In December 2013, several pelicans were found with their pouches slit on Cudjoe Key and in the Niles and Kemp channels in the Lower Keys.
Maya Totman, director of Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue, said the attacks had eased since the first maiming cases were reported but have picked up again.
“It’s a mystery,” she said. “I don’t know why people are doing this.”
About five months ago, Kyle Miller of Summerland Key was on his dock tossing out some old ballyhoo when he saw a brown pelican trying to eat the baitfish.
“I knew something was wrong because he’d take the ballyhoo and it would fall out of his trap,” he said. “He was so hungry, but he couldn’t get anything in his stomach.”
Brown pelicans are found in coastal areas, including Florida marinas. Miller said some fishermen find brown pelicans to be a nuisance.
“If you’re cleaning fish and you walk away from the cleaning table, they can come and grab your fish,” he said. “They’re always there on top of you. They can be bold. They’ll be right at your feet waiting for food. You can almost trip over them sometimes.”
While the pelicans may not be a fisherman’s favorite, Miller said it’s no excuse for harm.
“Even though pelicans are a nuisance, it’s not their fault,” he said. “You should never want to make any animal suffer. It’s heartless.”
Totman called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is investigating.
“We need to work together. I don’t want these birds to starve and die,” she said.
Pelicans need as much as 4 pounds of fish a day. Birds with sliced pouches eventually die of starvation.
The brown pelican is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Anyone injuring the birds is subject to fines and possible jail time if found guilty.
In 1970, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the brown pelican as endangered after environmental pesticide contamination threatened the species’ survival. In 1985, the population in Florida rebounded to 60,000 and it was taken off the Endangered Species list in that part of its range.
The brown pelican is also on Florida’s endangered and threatened species list as a species of special concern, due to habitat loss and numerous injuries from fishing hooks and lines.
Totman said she is working on a case with the wildlife agency that involves people beating pelicans with fishing poles.
“We need to live together in harmony,” she said. “The birds can’t help themselves. We’re here to help them. Why do you need to harm the birds?”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asks the public to report sightings of injured pelicans to the commission at 888-404-FWCC (3922) or to the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue at 305-872-1982 or 305-304-5326.