Should Utah designate brine shrimp, a relative of sea monkeys, as the state crustacean?

ST. GEORGE — Why do some believe that brine shrimp, related to the popularly known sea monkey, should represent Utah as the state’s designated crustacean?

A close-up of brine shrimp in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

Utah House Rep. Rosemary T. Lesser told St. George News she chose to sponsor the state crustacean designation, designated as HB 137 in the 2023 Utah legislature, after meeting with Great Salt Lake biologist Jaimi Butler and learning about a group of students that were “fascinated by the lake’s ecology and brine shrimp.”

“Not only does this bill highlight a fascinating species, but this also provided for students to participate in government,” she said.

The students visited Great Salt Lake each fall with Emerson Elementary School sixth grade teacher Josh Craner to “do some science on the beach,” he said.

For instance, they experimented to determine the salinity percentage that would allow the brine shrimp’s hard, dormant eggs, called cysts, to hatch.

At Butler’s suggestion, the students wrote letters to Utah legislators but still wanted to do more, Craner said.

“I kept asking her, ‘Is there anything else that we can do? These kids are feeling passionate about this,'” he said, adding that they ultimately decided to support a bill designating the brine shrimp as the state crustacean.

(L-R): Camila, Shayla and Jameson from Emerson Elementary School are planning to present to the Utah Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, Salt Lake City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Josh Craner, St. George News

During the 2022 legislative season, three of Craner’s sixth graders presented to the Natural Resources Committee, Lesser said.

The bill was approved by the committee and won a floor vote in the Utah House of Representatives, reaching the Senate, where it was not heard before the end of the final day. It is now on the docket for 2023, Lesser said.

“It was just that they didn’t get the time to be able to consider it,” she said.

Craner said the “kids were bummed,” but the students from this year’s class took up the mantle and, with Butler’s assistance, created a petition, which has gathered over 600 signatures as of Sunday, to promote the bill for the 2023 session.

Additionally, three more students will again present to the Natural Resources Committee, Craner said, adding that he’s proud of the students and how passionate they became as 11 to 12-year-olds.

“I think that it’s really amazing to watch these young kids realize that they do have power and I hope that them doing that could also inspire other kids to help,” he said.

Many state designations are related to industries specific to what the region is known for, Lesser said. For instance, Maine’s state crustacean is the lobster, and Oregan’s is the Dungeness crab.

A brine shrimp harvest, Great Salt Lake, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

Utah is home to the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and few organisms are adapted to “survive in this remarkable environment,” Lesser said.

Brine Shrimp, like brine flies, is a keystone species in the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, Craner said.

A keystone species is one that other species in the environment depend on for survival. For instance, migratory birds would be impacted population-wide should the brine shrimp disappear, Crane said.

The crustaceans are a “valuable food source” for migratory birds, feeding approximately 10 million birds annually.

For instance, eared Grebes forage almost exclusively on brine shrimp while preparing for their long migration, which would not be possible without this food source, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Brine shrimp are also a “critical” food source for aquaculture, the breeding, growing and harvesting of aquatic plants and animals. The industry is a significant global protein source, Lesser said. Additionally, the practice has been proposed as a solution for overfishing in the ocean.

“The country was founded with abundant land. … Moving forward to the 21st century, land has become more scarce,” she said.

Eared grebes, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Becky Matsubara from El Sobrante, California, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons, St. George News

“We’ve turned to the oceans to provide a source for feeding the world, and the brine shrimp are a key part of that. … It’s really interesting how this Utah-specific business has such a major impact on something so profound.”

Brine shrimp are “very underappreciated,” Butler said.

The creature’s eggs are sent across the globe to feed farmed aquatic animals, like prawns and marine fish, which are then sold commercially.

The industry reportedly contributes up to $60 million to Utah’s economy and supports hundreds of jobs, she said.

A female brine shrimp can hold up to 300 eggs in her egg sack at once, which can go into suspended animation when conditions aren’t suitable for hatching, Butler said.

Brine shrimp are adaptable, boasting the widest salt tolerance of any species, Butler said. And according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, they can survive in waters with 3-33% salinity.

The Great Salt Lake reached approximately 19% salinity last year and was reportedly at 18% more recently due to increased moisture, Butler said.

A close-up of brine shrimp eggs, called cysts, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

And while the crustaceans can tolerate high salt content, Butler said that the lake has now reached a salinity that is at the shrimp’s upper limit, causing them to grow and reproduce more slowly.

The optimal salt content for the lake would be between 12-16%, she added.

“In the next few years, we won’t have brine shrimp anymore,” Butler said.

The designation, if approved, would not translate directly to additional funding and doesn’t relate to tourism, Lesser said. Instead, it is meant to highlight the brine shrimp’s importance in its “very unique ecosystem.”

“But one of the most important goals of this legislative session is to do everything that we can to actually save this precious resource of the Great Salt Lake,” she said.

While Utah’s brine shrimp are native to the Great Salt Lake, Southern Utahns shouldn’t feel left out.

Butler said the area’s vernal, or seasonal pools that form in tiny basins in the rock are home to fairy shrimp, a freshwater crustacean related to brine shrimp.

A stock photo of hands holding fairy shrimp, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Tawatchai Jaeng-im/Shutterstock, St. George News

Similarly to brine shrimp, fairy shrimp eggs can remain in suspended animation when conditions are dry and spring to life after a rainstorm, according to Wild About Utah.

Additionally, Friends of Snow Canyon reported sightings in Snow Canyon State Park as recent as Jan. 10, on Facebook, following recent bouts of moisture.

To learn more, visit the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ webpages about the brine shrimp harvest and the critters themselves.

View the petition to designate brine shrimp as the state crustacean here. Those interested can also read the bill text.

The bill was introduced on Jan 17. and has not yet been heard in committee.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2023 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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