JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - One of the most invasive species in the state, and now researchers at the University of North Florida are taking a closer look at the purpose of lionfish.
Scales, teeth, spikes. Not quite a monster from a horror film, but lionfish are invading Florida’s warm water coast. Enter Dr. Eric Johnson - the man leading UNF’s research.
Inside a vile in his office cabinet is something he calls a “black box” of the lionfish: an otolith. The pebble sized growth inside the fish’s head paints a picture to researchers.
"It allows us to track a variety of things, one of those is growth rate in that these fish like trees actually will incorporate growth rings in the otolith that can be used to age the fish.," Johnson said.
What they can’t learn from that, they turn to the what’s in the stomach of the samples caught in a fishing tournament and donated to the lab last year.
"They’re eating many of the native species we have here, so they have a direct effect on small reed fish, but also competing with many fish we catch.," Johnson said.
He says what they cannot identify visually goes to the Smithsonian for testing.
In the lab he catalogs each fish. Taking care around the venomous tissue in the spine. Not an issue in the body of the fish, though, which is why there is a push to farm them out and serve them up on a platter.
"They’re here, we’re not getting rid of them in terms of eradication, you know we’re not going to extirpate the species but we can make use of them," Johnson said.
Still a work in progress since for now it’s a cheap, largely unknown fish.
"If you can raise the price, the fisherman will fish it, so you’ve got this sort of three head monster where you’re trying to increase demand on all sides so you can get more of these fish in restaurants," Johnson said.
He remains hopeful something good can come from the invasion.