Brine shrimp becomes Utah’s official state crustacean after Gov. Cox signs bill

Mar 20, 2023, 12:55 PM | Updated: 1:22 pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — The brine shrimp, a tiny crustacean that has lived in the Great Salt Lake area for at least 600,000 years, is now the official state crustacean of landlocked Utah.

Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB317 into law on Friday, creating the official designation.

“The importance of the brine shrimp in the Great Salt Lake ecosystem can’t be overstated,” said Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program Manager John Luft. “We are thrilled about the designation of the brine shrimp as the state crustacean and the attention they are getting for their role at the Great Salt Lake.”

Brine shrimp are around 1/2 inch big. In the fall, they produce eggs (called cysts), which are harvested by private companies and used as food for fish and commercially grown shrimp (sometimes called Sea-Monkeys).

(Utah DWR)

That harvest contributes to a multimillion-dollar industry in the state, and the DWR manages the brine shrimp population and regulates harvest to help balance a unique ecosystem. The commercial brine shrimp fishery at the Great Salt Lake supplies over 40% of the worldwide demand for brine shrimp.

The cysts being to hatch each spring and newly hatched brine shrimp larvae, called nauplii, dominate the water by late April.

The brine shrimp survive in water with salinities ranging from 3% to 33% salinity. Conditions in Great Salt Lake aren’t quite ideal, so it normally takes three to six weeks for brine shrimp to reach maturity.

According to the DWR, they feed by directing food toward their mouth via a series of undulating appendages, and they digest their food through a simple digestive tract. As they feed, they ingest a large quantity of salt water, which must be excreted through gills called “branchia.”

(Utah DWR)

“Geologic core samples show that brine shrimp have been present in the Great Salt Lake area for at least 600,000 years,” DWR biologists said. “Scientists believe that they arrived as cysts, or embryos covered in a protective shell, on the feet and within the feathers of migrating birds.”

Brine shrimps’ importance to Great Salt Lake ecosystem

Beyond their economic impact for Utah, brine shrimp help sustain the around 10 million birds, representing over 250 species, that pass by the Great Salt Lake annually.

A variety of these birds feed on brine shrimp, either exclusively or opportunistically, to fuel their long migrations, according to the DWR.

“Without this food source, the birds’ long migrations would not be possible,” biologists said.

New research suggests that as the Great Salt Lake shrinks and gets saltier, brine shrimp may be in danger of dramatic population declines.

Earlier this year, Cox signed an executive order that raised the Great Salt Lake causeway berm by 5 feet, in an effort to improve salinity conditions that are “threatening the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.”

Saving the Great Salt Lake is not going to be a quick fix

The Great Salt Lake reached a new all-time low lake level last year, and experts said that the southern arm has gotten saltier as the lake shrinks.

The southern arm is typically less salty because water from the Jordan, Bear, Ogden and Weber rivers flow into it. One possible reason for the change is that the northern arm’s water is heavier and is pushing higher concentrations of salt into the southern arm, division officials said last year. Crews then raised the berm in an effort to restore the normal balance of salinity between the two arms.

Other wildlife designations

The brine shrimp isn’t the only wildlife to recently be recognized as a new state symbol. The golden eagle was named the state bird of prey last year and the Gila monster was designated the official state reptile in 2019.

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Brine shrimp becomes Utah’s official state crustacean after Gov. Cox signs bill