Seizing a Species: The Story of the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Harvest

In the early 1950s, C.C. “Sparkplug” Sanders began harvesting brine shrimp from Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Sanders built up a small business selling their eggs, called “cysts”, to aquarium stores across the country. During the 80s, cysts were found to be an effective food source for aquaculture and a multimillion-dollar commercial harvesting industry quickly emerged. As the cysts rose in value, competition between harvesters grew fierce and annual catches soon began to drop. Environmentalists also became concerned, as the shrimp are an important food source for millions of migratory birds. The harvest was almost entirely unregulated during this period. Unlike other fisheries, where industry members have fought government intervention, many of the harvesters called on the state to increase oversight. Scientists hired by Utah’s natural resource agency found that no comprehensive studies had ever been conducted on the lake’s ecosystem, complicating initial efforts to manage the harvest. A twenty-year effort by the state, harvesters and other stakeholders to develop a science-based management strategy has recently begun to pay off as cyst populations appear to be stabilizing and the harvesting industry has once again become profitable.

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