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History of Utah’s Brine Shrimp Industry



Utah’s Great Salt Lake supplies the world’s shrimp hatcheries with brine shrimp eggs.  The hatchlings contain the perfect nutritional profile for feeding the larval stages of farm-raised shrimp.  Currently, approximately 75% of the world’s commercial harvest of brine shrimp eggs comes from the Great Salt Lake, and approximately 90% of this harvest is sold to shrimp hatcheries, making the lake’s egg harvesters an integral part of the world’s shrimp farming industry.  In 1991, Utah’s egg harvesters sold approximately 600 metric tons of eggs, worth between seven and ten million dollars, to shrimp hatcheries around the world.


The following article was submitted by John Peterson, director of engineering at Inland Sea Incorporated, a harvester, processor and marketer of the Great Salt Lakes brine shrimp eggs.  It reviews the history and biology of the lake, discusses harvesting techniques and touches briefly on the processing methods used at Inland Sea.


Its waters are so astonishingly dense that swimmers seem to lie on the surface the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah, the largest body of inland saline water in the Western Hemisphere.  Normally some eight times saltier than the ocean, it is the home of two life forms—a blue-green colonial algae, Aphanothece parchardii, and a small marine creature that feeds on this algae, the brine shrimp, Artemia sp.


Female brine shrimp have the curious ability to produce either live young or eggs (called cysts).  When conditions favor the survival of live young, the female produces them.  As winter approaches, however, the adult female produces cysts—embryos encased in a chitinous shell.  The cysts, harvested by fishermen, are processed and packaged by several companies.  Hatcheries in the farm-raised shrimp industry hatch the cysts and feed the hatchlings, called nauplii, to their shrimp larvae at the mysis I and mysis II stage of development.


The factors that influence and control the price and availability of brine shrimp cysts are perhaps not known or understood by the farm-raised shrimp industry.  Moreover, different brine shrimp companies, for competitive reasons, have released data from time to time that has not been particularly thorough or accurate.  This survey article is intended to discuss the brine shrimp industry in general and to mention some of the practices that are common to most companies.


During the rapid growth of the shrimp farming industry (1975-1991), the lake has been a fickle, changeable, and extremely unpredictable factor.  If there is a consensus among the competing companies that take brine shrimp cysts from its briny waters, it is that whatever conditions occur today will be different tomorrow.  The steady supply of Artemia cysts, plentiful in the last two years, is actually very tenuous, and a severe shortage would have a drastic effect on shrimp farming worldwide.


The best known fact about the Great Salt Lake, other than its saltiness, has probably been that it underwent a dramatic expansion in the recent past.  Today, its contraction is equally dramatic.  Where will it stabilize?  The meteorologists who were stunned by its unprecedented expansion have been equally unable to predict anything coherent about its now-occurring contraction.


In 1963, the lake was as low as had ever been observed in the 115 years or so since records were kept.  At that point, a slow rise in its level occurred until 1977.  The lake expanded to cover 6,200 square kilometers, more than twice its minimum surface.  The lake remained at about its 1977 level until record rainfall in late 1982 brought an eye-popping rise.  Astonishing snowfalls in the mountains that winter brought a crisis to downtown Salt Lake City in the spring.  The city authorities controlled serious flooding by making certain city streets into temporary rivers which dumped billions of cubic meters of water into the rapidly rising lake.


The wet weather continued for the years of 1983, 1984 and 1985, suspected but not actually known to be caused by the advent of the El Niño  ocean current.  On one day in February 1984, enough rain fell to raise the lake level by 5 centimeters, enough water to give every person on the earth a 28-liter drink.


What was the effect on the brine shrimp of this enormous influx of fresh water?  Profound, of course, but because of man’s inadvertent meddling with the circulation of the lake, the brine shrimp population was not destroyed, or even greatly inconvenienced.  The reasons were complicated, and not necessarily foreseeable.


From north to south, the lake and its marshy border stretches practically 160 kilometers.  This was an impediment to the first transcontinental railway that had to make a several-hundred kilometer northward detour around the lake.  A wooden bridge 50 kilometers long was constructed in 1904 to carry the railway directly across the lake.  This wooden bridge was badly damaged by fire in 1954 and was replaced thereafter by an earth filled causeway; a dam that divided the lake in two.  The majority of the fresh water flows into the part of the lake south of the causeway.  Since the construction of the causeway, the North Arm became steadily more salty, reaching concentrations 23 times greater than the ocean’s salt content.  The surface of the North Arm also became lower than the South Arm.  With the influx of fresh water, the South Arm became diluted to only three times ocean salinity—too little for the production of Artemia.  When the cysts disappeared from the South Arm they flourished in the North Arm.  Fishing operations shifted from south to north, and the harvest continued.  Most of the harvests in 1987, 1988 and 1989 were from the North Arm.


Today [1992] the fickle lake is shrinking at the same astonishing rate it previously expanded.  During the flooding, in an effort to equalize the lake’s level, a large breach was cut in the causeway permitting the South Arm waters to flow into the North Arm, lowering the level of the South Arm perceptibly.  As the water flowed under the causeway, however, it carried millions of tons of dissolved salt on a one-way trip north—never to return.  Now, the North Arm is far too salty for the best brine shrimp production.  Samples taken from the North Arm show much denser cysts of poorer quality.  Will the North Arm return as a quality fishery?  Who knows?


The taking of brine shrimp eggs from the Great Salt Lake is controlled by the State of Utah, which issues licenses for that purpose.  Licenses permit the taking of eggs from the lake waters in the winter months.  These licenses have gone up in price over the years as the state perceived this as a good source of revenue.  Now the cost of licenses is a significant portion of the overhead of the brine shrimp companies, especially since most large operators find multiple licenses necessary.  The license holders are those that are presumably engaged in the trade of catching, processing and selling the cysts—but not necessarily.  Some licensees confine their operations to fishing and selling their catch to other companies for processing.  Confusion arises because some brine shrimp companies are not licensed to catch, and it has become common for many of them to maintain several house brands, or sell the product unlabeled to be labeled by their distributors in the local markets.


For the same reasons that jellyfish accumulate in surface concentrations on the open ocean, the brine shrimp cysts, marginally less dense than the brine they float in, accumulate in concentrations on the lake surface after several days of gentle winds from the right direction.  Frequent storms disperse and scatter the concentrations.  Until just a few years ago, the fishermen caught the cysts by simply waiting until a concentration was beached and shoveled the cysts into bags.  From time to time, incredible concentrations of hundreds of metric tons of cysts washed ashore.  By lease or purchase, the efficient operators acquired favorable sites on the leeward shore.  Because of the lake’s geometry, the cysts beached in certain locations more frequently than others.  Consequently, the large brine shrimp companies competed for some of the bleakest, most brutal and lifeless, desert beaches on the planet, paying prices typical of resort beach properties.


With the rising of the waters—and the loss of established harbors and access roads—the harvest methods changed.  Now, invariably, the cysts are netted well offshore by fishing boats.  Scouting aircraft locate promising egg concentrations and workboats, equipped with the most modern navigation equipment, proceed to those locations.  Regulations require each operation to maintain at least 300 meter separation from any boat previously established in the vicinity.  The fishermen surround the cysts with floating booms, then gently winch the booms into the vicinity of the workboats and pump the cysts into catchment seines.  These modern harvesting methods have proven superior in two important ways: the catch is cleaner and is not contaminated with sand and dirt as before, and it is also higher quality.  There are fewer non-viable cysts in the open water than from those cast up on beaches.  The old methods of harvesting from the beaches will probably never be used again.


The fishing operation appears simple.  Locate the eggs, surround them and pump them aboard.  But it’s not quite that simple.  To the astonishment of experienced ocean fishermen, boat navigation on the dense brine of the Great Salt Lake presents many challenges.  The dense water makes everything float higher.  A vessel laden to capacity in the ocean will bob like a cork on the Great Salt Lake.  Moreover, the lake is shallow, averaging 4.5 meters, with a maximum depth of 10 meters or so.  The waves are short pitched and steeper than most oceanic waves.  There is far more energy in a wave of this kind—a vessel that would merely cut through an ocean wave is pitched violently when struck by a smaller but far more massive lake wave.  Then, there is the weather—changeable, frequently violent, as winter storms sweep across the lake.  And electrical equipment is highly unreliable; the lake water conducts electricity better than wires, it seems.  Metals giving satisfactory service on the ocean corrode alarmingly fast on the lake.


Fishing operations can only be carried out during the winter, when, at 41 degrees north latitude, the days are very short.  The water is so cold that any fresh water that falls in it will float and freeze.  An unprotected fisherman immersed in the lake would only live for a few minutes.  Dense fogs are common.  It is not simple or inexpensive to put a good catch into the warehouse.  Only a few good fishing days—clear weather, calm waters and concentrations of eggs—can be expected each winter.


Every brine shrimp company has its own processing techniques.  These are closely guarded secrets, and it is not in the interest of this article to explore what is known about handling and processing methods; those matters are properly regarded as the intellectual property of the respective companies.  Being familiar with Inland Sea operations, I can describe them.  They are probably similar to those of the other companies, but, keep in mind, each company has its own trade secrets.


Inland Sea, of course, believes that its methods are different and better.  Quality control begins on the harvest boat.  All data that might be significant are measured and recorded at the time of catch.  These statistics are correlated with final characteristics of the processed cysts, allowing us to compare the catching conditions to product quality.  Great care is taken to see that the catch is not exposed to fresh water.  Rain or snow falling on the fresh catch could initiate a hatch, and this would certainly be detrimental.  After the cysts are transported to the warehouse, they are handled very carefully in a controlled atmosphere to preserve them in the best condition possible until it is time to process.


Inland Sea’s process is similar to that of the other brine shrimp companies.  Basically, the process involves a fresh water wash, which does two things.  It cleans the eggs, and it moves them into a condition where the hatching process can proceed rapidly.  The exact details of the process are, of course, a secret, based on careful experimentation.  After drying, the cysts are put through several other steps and then either shipped in bulk, or in vacuum cans, depending upon the customer’s needs.


In recent years, the cysts have been of good quality, and cysts regarded as premium in years past are now sold at a lower grade.  This reflects the general increase in the competitive market, caused by good harvests and stiff competition, and also a better appreciation on the part of the customers that high quality eggs at a premium price are ultimately the best bargain.


Inland Sea’s organization is divided into four areas of operation—harvesting, processing, quality control and marketing.  Inland Sea is perhaps different in that much of the harvest equipment and essentially all the processing equipment were designed and fabricated in-house, reflecting our experiments that showed the steps needed for the best process.  A separate engineering operation is a unique part of Inland Sea; we think our process is different in most respects, with no precedent elsewhere.  The harvest operation is divided administratively into the airborne and waterborne activities.  The process includes storage, handling, processing, and packing.  Separate managers work in each of these areas.


Inland Sea, although rather new on the scene, is composed of people who have the skills and experience to provide the goods and services needed by shrimp hatcheries.  The business is based on a high and uniform quality of cysts and excellent service.


Sources: 1. The Great Salt Lake.  John Peterson, Inland Sea Incorporated, 118 South 8th West, Brigham City, Utah 84302 USA (phone 801-723-7479, fax 801-723-7807).  Received July 11, 1992.  2. Bob Rosenberry, Shrimp News International.   Article Lightly Edited.  May 27, 2017.



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