August 30, 2018

Toward Sustainable Seafood: The Great Salt Lake’s Brine Shrimp Harvest

Kim S. Colton

Picture an all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet with mounds of pink crustaceans on ice. More likely than not, those piles of protein were fed in part by another type of “shrimp” native to Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Approximately 90 percent of the shrimp eaten in the United States is farmed, and Americans consume more than four pounds of shrimp per person each year—more than any other seafood, including tuna and salmon.

A vital component of shrimp aquaculture is live feed, including brine shrimp harvested from the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Artemia franciscana, the species of brine shrimp found in the Great Salt Lake, is the foundation of a multimillion dollar industry that supports aquaculture around the globe. The annual harvest involves collecting brine shrimp eggs or cysts that ultimately hatch into live feed for shrimp farms.

Artemia are one of the few organisms able to live in the Great Salt Lake with a salinity level five times that of the ocean. The creatures resemble transparent, feathery bugs in the water and grow to less than half an inch. Optimal conditions allow adult females to live as long as three months and to produce as many as 300 tiny eggs. In a landlocked state more than 600 miles from the nearest ocean, a vast fleet of commercial fishermen compete for this creature’s eggs.

Second only to the Great Lakes, the Great Salt Lake is the largest body of water lying within the United States. As a saltwater lake, however, it is vulnerable to many climate and other variables. Brine shrimp require a delicate ecosystem, and water levels in the Great Salt Lake are currently shrinking. Since 1847, the Great Salt Lake has steadily shrunk, reaching its lowest recorded level in 2016. Today, the lake is at least 3.6 meters below its 1847 level and perhaps half its original volume.

Previously, many researchers thought the primary reason for the receding waters in the Great Salt Lake (as with other saltwater lakes) was due to changes in wet and dry cycles related to climate change. Additional study, however, has suggested that the Great Salt Lake’s water level decline largely stems from up-gradient water diversion related to regional population increases. Sarah Derouin, Utah’s Great Salt Lake Has Lost Half Its Water, Thanks to Thirsty Humans, Science Magazine (Nov. 3, 2017). Generally, studies have concluded that inflows to the Great Salt Lake must increase significantly to maintain its future health and stability.

A Historic Inland Fishery and Unique Species

Recognizing the fragility of the ecosystem, the brine shrimp industry is especially concerned about sustainability. Over the past 20 years, the industry has partnered with government regulators and has sought actively to develop practices and policies to ensure the brine shrimp harvest continues year to year. The early years were less about cooperation and more about wild-west type competition. The Great Salt Lake’s brine shrimp harvest is a story that is part nature, part legend, part government-industry partnership, and part ecological balance.

In the early 1950s, C. C. Sanders from Ogden, Utah, wrote to The Aquarium, a magazine for tropical fish hobbyists, that there were “brine shrimp by the billions” in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Of course, Artemia had long occupied the lake—likely for thousands of years. But Sanders is credited with discovering that they made powerful food for the betta fish he raised and sold. Sanders developed a family business that sold brine shrimp to aquarium supply stores. Sanders, his family, and friends gathered the tiny creatures in inflatable kiddie pools, rubber tanks, and the backs of pickup trucks. Back in Sanders’ garage, they rinsed the brine shrimp and packaged them in containers of varying sizes. The containers were kept in cold storage until they were shipped to aquariums, hobbyists, and pet stores. Sanders also discovered that it was easier to pack and ship brine shrimp cysts rather than live brine shrimp; it is those Artemia cysts that are the focus of the modern brine shrimp harvest. For a detailed history of the brine shrimp harvest, see Samuel A. Wotipka, Seizing a Species: The Story of the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Harvest (June 30, 2014) (unpublished master’s thesis, on file with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries), available at https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/92636.

The brine shrimp’s anatomy and physiology are unique and affect both the way they are harvested and their value to aquaculture. Brine shrimp have been described as the best osmoregulators in the animal kingdom. While their exoskeletons are impermeable to the salt surrounding them, their bodies are flooded with highly concentrated saltwater as they open their mouths to eat. Specialized cells lining their stomachs absorb the briny water and internal pumps excrete excess salt through their gills and a gland near their head.

Those internal pumps speed up or slow down depending on the current concentration of salt in their environment. Of course, that salinity level of the water in which they live varies, depending on factors like the amount of freshwater inflow to the lake, evaporation rates, and the extent to which humans may be collecting or using the salt (about 2.5 million tons of salt are removed from the Great Salt Lake each year for commercial purposes). Thus, their unique anatomy allows brine shrimp to maintain relatively stable sodium levels.

Another unique survival skill is the brine shrimp’s ability to predict how best to reproduce based on its current environment. Many animals can time their reproductive cycles to coordinate with the seasons; their objective is to give birth when weather is mild and food is abundant. For brine shrimp, however, timing is never a guarantee of favorable conditions. During pregnancy, female brine shrimp perceive trends in their environmental conditions and give birth to either live offspring, called nauplii, or, if conditions are unfavorable, they produce cysts.

Water and salinity levels in saltwater lakes can swing dramatically over the course of any given year depending on drought and other inflow and evaporation conditions. For example, during winter months, temperatures in the Great Salt Lake frequently drop below freezing (the lake rarely solidifies because saltwater has a much lower freezing point than freshwater). Hardy as they are, even brine shrimp cannot tolerate water this cold, and by October most of them die off.

When brine shrimp die because of freezing temperatures, poor conditions, or simply the end of their life, their cysts are left behind. Cysts usually float on the surface of the lake, and, as they are swept together by the current and the wind, they tend to collect in expansive floating masses referred to as “slicks.” From above, they look like broad, brown brush strokes painted on the lake’s surface. In the spring, the brine shrimp cysts hatch and repopulate the lake.

Brine shrimp cysts are highly fortified eggs that can remain in a state of suspended development indefinitely. This ability to live in suspended development is known as cryptobiosis. These cysts hatch when their environment returns to a survivable state. Cysts that stay dry can remain viable for up to five years.

Sanders gathered brine shrimp for almost 30 years with little competition. In the 1980s, shrimp farms—then primarily in Southeast Asia—learned that Artemia are a very effective feed for shrimp in its larval stages. Shrimp have poor survival rates when they are fed artificial feed. On the other hand, their survival rates are much higher and their growth much more robust when they are fed live feed. Shrimp farming throughout the world turned Artemia cysts into a global commodity, and Great Salt Lake Artemia cysts were generally recognized as the best.

Demand for brine shrimp eggs grew dramatically, and Great Salt Lake brine shrimpers began shipping cysts to places like Thailand, Vietnam, and Ecuador. These new markets forever changed the brine shrimp harvest on the Great Salt Lake.

New fishermen (or brine shrimpers as they prefer) flocked to the lake in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the mostly unregulated harvest turned fast-paced and highly competitive. Those who participated during those years tell tales of piracy. Though documentation is scarce, stories are repeated of guns being drawn and boats being used as battering rams. Harvest crews were on the lake nearly 24/7, and rather than tow boats back to town when night fell or conditions kept them off the water, crews would create makeshift camps on the shoreline for a few hours of sleep before heading back to the slicks. The dedicated brine shrimpers competed fiercely for their share of the harvest.

Emerging Regulations and Licenses

Beginning in 1991, the state of Utah, through its Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), required brine shrimpers on the lake to have a fishing license. Before that, there was little to no regulation of the growing industry. A fishing license for brine shrimp was known as a certificate of registration (COR), which had to be visibly displayed on the harvester’s boat. CORs remain central to the state’s regulatory scheme today. See Utah Admin. Code R657-52-1 to -19.

Many early conflicts arose over who had rights to a particular slick. Good-sized slicks can be over a mile long. To claim a slick, brine shrimpers simply placed a buoy next to it. By general agreement and under limited regulations at the time, COR holders were granted a buffer zone of 300 yards around their buoy. The intent generally was to give the first boat on the slick the right to harvest that slick. However, given the size of some slicks, another boat often started at the other end and confrontations occurred in the middle.

Conflicts in the brine shrimp community often resulted in litigation. The business was relatively new, profitable, and fast-paced. Moreover, no one was certain how long it would last. There was sort of a gold-rush feeling about the whole enterprise. In fact, brine shrimp have been referred to as “brown gold” more than once. Personalities in the community tended toward the truculent. Multiple lawsuits were spawned between and among partnerships and other business entities that worked on the lake. Disputes sometimes centered on CORs, how they were renewed, who held rights to them, and how they could be transferred.

Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the harvest evolved from a homespun experiment into a well-orchestrated, high-tech operation, including spotting planes, night-vision technology, global positioning systems, and fleets of boats with specialized harvest equipment. That evolution required development of harvesting and processing equipment. The harvest is not limited to collecting cysts but also includes cleaning, drying, and packaging them. Patent and other intellectual property disputes consumed a good share of the community’s energy as they determined who actually developed what processes and products used in the harvest and processing of brine shrimp and what value they held for the industry.

Early disputes also led to consolidation among brine shrimpers as individual COR holders were bought out and cooler heads began to take over the business. Eventually, those cooler heads moved beyond a gold-rush mentality and turned to thoughts of sustainability.

The Great Salt Lake brine shrimp harvest became an example of rational thinking in an industry that began as all passion. Brine shrimp harvesters approached the state in the 1990s and asked them to regulate the harvest. Their fear was depletion of the resource. Don Leonard, who became president of the Utah Artemia Association at its founding in 1996 and who is now chief executive officer of the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, said, “We didn’t want to wake up one day and read the headline ‘industry depletes the lake.’” Leia Larsen, U.S. Brine Shrimp Industry Could Be in Peril if Great Salt Lake Keeps Shrinking, Standard Examiner, May 1, 2016, at B-1 (quoting Don Leonard).

The brine shrimpers themselves asked for increased state oversight. Several important fisheries, including the North Atlantic cod fishery, collapsed in the early 1990s due to overfishing and poor management. Brine shrimpers on the Great Salt Lake took those failures as a warning and began to think about the sustainability of their product.

In 1997, with the support of virtually all brine shrimpers on the lake, the DWR limited the number of CORs to 79—the number of CORs at that time. Utah Admin. Code R657-52-4(d). The DWR determined that (a) such limitation was necessary to protect the brine shrimp resource and the Great Salt Lake ecosystem; (b) additional research and data were necessary to understand brine shrimp populations, the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, and the impact harvesting has on the sustainability of the resource; and (c) the issuance of additional certificates could compromise DWR’s ability to regulate the harvest effectively and ensure resource sustainability. Id. R657-52-4(a) through -4(c); see also Utah Code Ann. § 23-19-45. That same year, the state of Utah also began to assess a royalty on the total pounds of brine shrimp harvested each year. Utah Code Ann. §§ 59-23-1 to -8.

Restricting the number of licenses effectively closed the brine shrimping community to newcomers. The regulations establish requirements for COR renewal and limit their transfer. CORs nonetheless became increasingly valuable and were bought and sold regularly throughout the early 2000s. The basic structure of the regulatory scheme has remained the same since those first harvest limits were put in place. A COR allows the holder the right to harvest brine shrimp cysts in one place at a time either on the surface of the lake or from the surrounding shorelines, and the DWR charges an annual COR renewal fee. Some companies hold multiple CORs, which allows them to harvest in multiple locations at once. The fee for those permit renewals recently was raised from $10,000 to $15,000 per year. Utah Admin. Code R657-52-6.

Unlike other regulated commercial fisheries, Utah’s DWR does not rely on a catch quota to prevent overharvesting. Instead, it has determined a minimum number of cysts per liter of lake water that must be left behind to regenerate a full population in spring. Once the season opens on October 1, the harvest proceeds until the population is depleted to that number or until January 31, whichever comes first. Id. R657-52-12. This routine better ensures a healthy and consistent brine shrimp population by requiring that a certain number will always remain in the lake. The lake’s contained nature makes it possible to estimate how many adult brine shrimp and cysts are present with a higher level of confidence than is possible for most other fisheries.

Along with monitoring brine shrimp population levels, DWR officials join with Utah State Park officials and patrol the lake at least four times each season to check harvest boats. State officials ensure boats and equipment are properly registered and comply with all usual vehicle safety requirements.

DWR staff originally tasked with managing the brine shrimp harvest in 1997 determined that 21 cysts per liter of lake water must remain for the shrimp to repopulate the ecosystem each year. The Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program: A Collaborative Effort with Impressive Results, Friends of Great Salt Lake, Vol. 22 (Spring 2016), at 9. The state has adhered religiously to this standard, even when it means the harvest season must be cut short. The original DWR data also have shown that if too many eggs hatch, brine shrimp swiftly exhaust their food supply––a mixture of algae––and then the population quickly collapses. This knowledge helps justify the harvest to conservationists worried about maintaining an adequate brine shrimp population to feed the millions of migratory birds that visit the Great Salt Lake.

A few years into consistent state regulation, cyst populations were found to be extremely low. The DWR ended that season especially early, provoking some panic within the industry. But the population rebounded, much to the benefit of the harvesters. Since then, the industry overwhelmingly has supported the state’s regulatory efforts. Over the past 10 years, cyst populations and harvests have remained much more stable.

Status of the Stock

Today, the DWR’s Great Salt Lake ecosystem program manages the annual harvest and reports levels each week of cysts, larvae (or nauplii), males, and females per liter of lake water as well as the cumulative pounds of biomass harvested for the season. In 2018, the harvest collected 35,124,642 pounds of biomass—cysts, plus brine shrimp, empty brine shrimp shells, brine flies, brine fly casings and larvae, algae, plant debris, bird feathers, and other material. As of January 10, 2018, the level of cysts fell below 21 per liter of lake water, and the DWR issued a seven-day timeout for the harvest. No one was allowed on the lake for seven days. See Utah Admin. Code R657-52-12(1)(c). By January 17, 2018, the levels had not changed, and DWR declared the harvest over for the south arm of the lake but allowed it to continue in the north arm of the lake until January 31.

The total harvest for 2017–2018, more than 35 million pounds, is the largest ever recorded. In addition to annual COR renewal fees, the state receives a royalty of $0.0325 per pound of biomass drawn from the lake. Utah Code Ann. § 59-23-4(1). This year, Utah’s legislature actually reduced the royalty percentage but further specified that such funds were to be used in part to support the Governor’s Great Salt Lake Advisory Council. Brine Shrimp Royalty Amendments, H.B. 274, 2018 Gen. Sess. (Mar. 22, 2018) (to be codified at Utah Code Ann. § 59-23-4 and § 65A-5-1).

Even so, for 2018, the state will take one of its biggest paydays ever from the pursuit of tiny brine shrimp eggs at the lake. The amount of useable product rarely equates to the amount of biomass collected. So, while brine shrimp companies may pay more in state royalty taxes this year, they nonetheless could see a smaller-than-normal percentage of sellable product.

Despite often harsh conditions, brine shrimp companies nonetheless remain profitable, in large part because of their collaboration. In 2006, the majority of COR holders formed the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, Inc. (Cooperative). After several particularly lean harvest years in the early 2000s, COR holders determined that they should work together in many aspects of the process. The Cooperative now harvests, processes, packages, and markets Artemia cysts all over the world on behalf of its members. Cooperation among the brine shrimpers generally has proved both lucrative and beneficial not only for the brine shrimpers but also for the ecosystem.

The Cooperative supports state regulation. Brine shrimpers proposed some of the initial limitations to help keep the population healthy, and they fund continuing research in the DWR’s Great Salt Lake ecosystem program. Those who make up this unique commercial fishery understand and appreciate the regulatory scheme that cuts their season early, calls time outs, and otherwise limits their time on the Great Salt Lake.

Resource management generally does not have a finish line. The perpetual goal is balance, but achieving balance is usually difficult and always temporary. In Utah, after a struggle lasting almost two decades, state regulators and industry seemed to have achieved this rare equipoise. How long they remain there is anyone’s guess.

A common misconception persists that in the absence of human interference, nature will remain in a state of equilibrium. In fact, nothing could be further from reality. Conditions change, and species rise and fall. Like every other species, brine shrimp have good and bad years. At present, the brine shrimp harvest is working out. The viability of the Great Salt Lake as brine shrimp habitat, however, may be threatened by the variable water levels, the variable salinity levels, the increasing water temperature, and the reduced water inflows resulting from residential growth and water diversion.

As the Great Salt Lake shrinks, the vitality of the brine shrimp industry is threatened. Low water has taken a toll. The Cooperative recently has spent more than $2 million dredging harbors to be able to get its boats on the lake. Larsen, supra at B-1.

As the water in the lake drops, the salinity increases, which can have serious implications for species survival. Adult brine shrimp can survive in water with 30 percent salinity, but ideally, they need salinity levels at around 15 percent to produce the optimal amount of cysts. To start hatching, cysts need to be at around 10 percent salinity. Additionally, for many years the Great Salt Lake was divided by a Union Pacific railroad causeway. The causeway recently was breached affecting water levels and corresponding salinity between the north and south arms of the lake. Consequences and implications of the causeway breach are still being evaluated. See Leia Larsen, 1 Year after the Breach, Great Salt Lake Causeway Creates Mixed Feelings, Standard Examiner, Jan. 22, 2018, at 1.

Increases in water temperature can compromise brine shrimp populations. Unlike brine shrimp, the algae that brine shrimp eat cannot survive in warmer waters. Therefore, fewer algae can precipitate a crash in brine shrimp populations and can have consequences for the harvesting industry.

Great Salt Lake Artemia and their associated products have loyal customers around the globe, but they are not alone in the market. Buyers have turned to brine shrimp from China and nations from the Commonwealth of Independent States in the former Soviet Union. Brine shrimpers in those countries can harvest at much lower cost and provide a less expensive product.

Scientists are hard at work on man-made products to replace the delicate brine shrimp cyst. Artemia is increasingly viewed as a bottleneck for aquaculture’s growth. Achieving increased production goals at shrimp farms will strain Artemia supplies unless the industry can break its dependence on this natural resource. Many believe that man-made Artemia-replacement diets ultimately can supplant the need for live feed in shrimp farming.

Still, Artemia franciscana—the brine shrimp species found in the Great Salt Lake—is widely considered the best feed in the world, and many shrimp farms only want the best. The story of harvesting brine shrimp cysts from the Great Salt Lake will continue to evolve. For now, the shrimp many of us consume grows in part from the land-locked sea in the middle of the Great Basin. Sustainability of that growth will depend upon significant cooperation among industry, science, regulators, and politicians––as well as some luck from nature.

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    Kim S. Colton

    Mr. Colton is counsel at Snell & Wilmer L.L.P. in Salt Lake City, Utah. He may be reached at kcolton@swlaw.com.