Great Salt Lake

A boat surrounds a thick mat of brine shrimp cysts on the Great Salt Lake.

Although most of us Utahns (when thinking about the Great Salt Lake) might include things like lake effect snowfall, pioneer stories of seagulls and crickets, or even the putrid smell it produces from time to time, we might even think about its commercial salt production that supplies much of the surrounding states with road salt during the winter. But, did you know that fishing in its extremely salty water produces millions of tons of fish food and is crucial for the health of at least 10 million migrating birds?

As a little change of pace this week, allow me to pass on some interesting facts about Utah’s most famous water feature and focus on the fishing in the Great Salt Lake.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) sent me a press release the other day highlighting a milestone in its 26-year history of managing the brine shrimp production and harvest in the massive lake and highlighting the role it plays in balancing the fishing with short and long-term commitments to preserving the ecosystem that provides such a bounty.

Brine shrimp are tiny crustaceans that inhabit extremely salty waters like the Salton Sea (California) and of course the Great Salt Lake. They can range from 1/3 to 1/2 of an inch in length, way too small for human consumption.

Quoting from the press release, “The brine shrimp produce eggs (called cysts), which are harvested and used as food for fish and commercially grown shrimp. The brine shrimp season begins Oct. 1 and typically runs until Jan. 31 each year, except when the dates are extended or shortened for management purposes.”

Commercial fishermen caught (this past season) over 44 million raw pounds of cysts which is a record harvest. The UDWR reports that over the past decade, annual production in raw poundage hovered between 25 and 35 million pounds. Raw poundage doesn’t mean that all the weight is able to be marketed though because inside the raw poundage numbers are small amounts of sand and even bird feathers.

Brine shrimp cysts are in high demand worldwide which has resulted in overharvesting of other commercial fisheries around the world, so the UDWR began managing the harvest in Utah with the goal to keep the cyst harvest sustainable.

“The companies that harvest the brine shrimp actually asked for the regulation,” Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program Manager John Luft said. “We greatly appreciate their cooperation and their role in helping us manage the delicate balance in this important habitat. This is one of the most successful examples of cooperation between industry and conservation.”

Weekly (during the season), UDWR biologists pull nets around the lake, take the samples to a lab and the brine shrimp are counted and their life stages noted, which helps biologist manage how many cysts are harvested.

“It’s a tricky balance because the adult shrimp typically freeze and die each December, while the cysts will survive and hatch in March,” Luft said. “When the cysts hatch, they survive by eating the algae in the lake, which is also what the juvenile and adult brine shrimp eat. However, if there are too many cysts that hatch, they eat all the algae and run out of food before they reach adulthood, which is when they produce more cysts.

“So, we have to manage the harvest to fit that balance, which is about 21 cysts per liter of water. Once it reaches that threshold, we either close the harvest for the year or we extend it if enough cysts haven’t been harvested. You can overharvest them, but you can also under harvest them, which is why it’s a delicate balance that requires a lot of monitoring.”

According to multiple sources, the Great Salt Lake contributes literally billions of dollars to the Utah economy. Next week, I will write about the interconnectivity between the Great Salt Lake and many of our most popular reservoirs and how you can take advantage of that knowledge to catch more fish. Stay tuned.

Don Allphin can be reached at don@donallphin.com.

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