The Great Salt Lake occasionally smells strange during the summer and then there’s the “lake effect” in the winter. But within the waters of North America's most salty lake lies a unique variety of brine shrimp species that has spawned a rare public/private partnership between the Utah Department of Natural Resources and more than a dozen businesses.
As we prepared to leave the Antelope Island marina, aquatics biologist Phil Brown laid out the basic plan for the day I was to spend with John Luft, the program manager of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem and another aquatics biologist Jim Van Leeuwen. This operation is run within the Division of Wildlife Resources. Great Salt Lake brine shrimp eggs, known as cysts, are what this program is all about. There are as many as 17 shrimping companies quietly collecting millions of pounds of what they call raw harvest from the lake every week. This small team tells the industry when the harvest ends for the year by closely monitoring the biology of the lake. They collect regular data from the water including the clarity of the lake, microbe types and amounts, the salinity of the water and a long list of other factors. But the most important data they gather is the average level of cysts per liter. John Luft says that level directly affects not only the brine shrimp industry but half the world’s population of a water bird known as the Eared Grebe and millions of other birds on the lake.
“One of the major issues that we’d like to ensure is that there’s enough shrimp here for the birds. That’s one thing, but we also want to maintain a sustainable population of shrimp that can be harvested. So there’s an economic component there,”says John Luft.
He says research has shown there’s an ideal threshold of cysts per liter to reach each winter and that’s where the ecosystem relies on industry.
“You also run the risk of not harvesting enough shrimp, which seems counterintuitive but the best thing to do is to get as close to that threshold as possible,” Luft says.
They test this by pulling a metered net straight up from the bottom in 17 predetermined spots.
Gary Belovsky is a biologist at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in conservation and population biology. He developed the original formulas to determine that threshold. The DWR first considered regulating the industry in 1994 and Belovsky was known at that time for his lab work with the species known as Artemia franciscana. He says the Division needed his knowledge to help them transition to regulation on the lake.
“That’s one of the most interesting things. When Utah Division of Wildlife Resources got started with me in 1994, I did a literature search to see what we knew about the brine shrimp in the Great Salt Lake and there was very, very little data,” says Gary Belovsky.
He was on a hunting trip in Montana when he got the phone call from the Division manager asking questions for which there were no answers. But spending hours in his truck that day on a cellphone with a pencil and scrap papers, he calculated a cysts-per-liter number which to this day is still in use.
“It turns out that the best value for harvesting would be at about twenty three and a half and we lucked out, there was a great deal of luck there on that first estimate…and we were at 21 at that time," says Belovsky.
Back at the lake, ecosystem manager John Luft says everything he and the brine shrimp companies do on the lake revolves around 21 cysts per liter.
“When I, you know, make management decisions to close the season or call a time out, it’s based on that information,” Luft says.
That data is also published weekly during the shrimping season on the DWR website.
The processed and packaged eggs sell for up to 60 dollars a pound and are marketed to aquariums suppliers, fisheries and shrimp and prawn farms around the world. One heaping tablespoon contains about 200-thousand eggs. Hatchlings called nauplii, are the baby food for what eventually becomes shrimp cocktail or salmon filet.
The 17 companies harvesting the eggs are all members of a cooperative called Great Salt Lake Artemia, with only one exception. Don Leonard is the President of the Utah Artemia Association and a Chairman of the Cooperative. He says harvesting is complex and expensive. The first step is to locate, from the air, the cluster where the eggs likely are gathered in what is called a streak.
“Then we’ll send the boats to that area and hopefully they can harvest them and capture before they sink in the water column again. It’s rigorous work and fatigue alone would pretty much keep anyone from that kind of regime,” says Don Leonard.
He says the eggs tend to move up and down in the water column as well be wind-blown. He says the industry is very fortunate that the Great Salt Lake is the only meaningful source of brine shrimp eggs in the Western Hemisphere.
“There are a number of salty bodies of water, in China and Russia, but as far as our corner of the world, the Great Salt Lake is the one and only,” says Don Leonard.
It’s a fact that adds uniqueness to the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp both as a natural resource and a marketable product.
Biologist Gary Belovsky says the management system seems to be proving its viability over time.
“Even though at times there can be tension, it’s been a good example of research working with state agencies and industry being involved and so it’s been a team effort of all the parties involved in coming to figuring out and continuing to improve on managing the lake,” says Gary Belovsky.
The season so far this year isn’t quite meeting expectations. John Luft of the DWR says the raw harvest numbers are regularly hitting records and are on track to exceed a season total of 26 million pounds. But he says tests over the past two weeks indicate the season will be over in less than a month since the cysts per liter numbers are diving quickly. Don Leonard, of the cooperative, says this record raw harvest has been a good thing but is costing more this year to bring in. He’s also concerned about the quality or yield of his harvest – and that so far has been below average.
Note: This story was corrected after it aired. The Eared Grebe was originally described as a duck which is not correct. It is considered a water bird. Also, the correct total raw biomass harvest reference should be 26 million pounds for the season not per week as originally stated.