South Aral Sea, Uzbekistan — As the rising sun casts golden rays over the Aral Sea, a group of Uzbek fishermen wearing sweatshirts and knit caps gathered on a chilly beach to discuss the day’s plan.
For two days they had waited in vain for brine shrimp. A dead calm in the first cold days of winter replaced winds that usually blow large slicks of the tiny crustaceans to shore.
Standing and smoking cigarettes beside ramshackle cabins covered in sheets of plastic to keep out the elements, the fishermen debated whose turn it was to check if any shrimp had drifted in. Two volunteers jumped on a rattling old truck and chugged off miles into the distance to scour the beach.
When the winds blow just right, Aral Sea fishermen work up to 36 hours gathering brine shrimp eggs, also known as cysts. They often labor with headlamps through the darkness. Winter temperatures can dip as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Sometimes we get so sleepy you feel drunk,” said Miyrbek Mirzamuratov, an Uzbek fisherman who has spent two winters gathering cysts on the Aral Sea.
The Great Salt Lake remains the world’s largest source of brine shrimp cysts, exporting 40% of the global supply. The shrimp are a key food source used in aquaculture. Seafood is the main source of protein for billions of people across the planet, and aquaculture, fueled by brine shrimp, now produces roughly half of the world’s commercial seafood. But drought and decreasing water resources have put new pressure on brine shrimp in both Utah and Central Asia. In 2022, the Great Salt Lake’s shrimp populations almost collapsed due to record-low water elevation and spiking salinity.
“We're all starting to realize just how much the lake touches us in many ways that we don't appreciate,” said Tim Hawkes, a former Utah state representative and current general counsel for the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative. “Most people wouldn't think that affects what you eat, but it does.”
Environmental challenges are also forcing scientists in Uzbekistan to devise ways to save their own brine shrimp – and help keep the world fed if Utah can’t ensure its own inland sea survives.
The little shrimp that feed a planet
Despite being too salty for fish, the Great Salt Lake’s aquaculture industry infuses Utah’s economy with up to $67 million each year, thanks to brine shrimp.
That’s because their cysts, no bigger than a grain of sand, tolerate extreme conditions.
“You can boil them, you can freeze them, you can send them to outer space,” Hawkes said. “And still, under the right conditions, if you put them in a little bit of salt water and give them some light, they're going to hatch out.”
It makes brine shrimp cysts an ideal product to package and ship across the world, where they’re raised as an essential food source for the farmed seafood humans eat, particularly prawns and cocktail shrimp.
Although farm-raised seafood has generated controversy due to its runoff pollution and impacts to wild fisheries, the United Nations issued a 2020 report identifying it as a critical player in global food security. It provides nutritious protein at low cost to rural and developing communities that have a hard time producing other farmed goods.
U.S. consumption of seafood has steadily increased in the decades since Great Salt Lake entrepreneurs began exporting brine shrimp cysts to farms in the 1990s.
Globally, the average person ate 44.5 pounds of seafood in 2020, up from 31.5 pounds in the 1990s, according to the U.N. More than half of that came from farms.
“If we lost the Great Salt Lake,” Hawkes said, “or we lost the ability to produce brine shrimp from the Great Salt Lake, it would have a significant impact on our ability to feed the world.”
Many Asian countries now help meet the world’s increasing demand for farmed seafood and brine shrimp, part of a global aquaculture network that stretches from Utah to Uzbekistan.
Companies on the Great Salt Lake gather brine shrimp cysts from the water with boats and floating booms similar to those used to contain oil spills, but the work is still mostly done by hand in Uzbekistan and other Asian countries.
Uzbek fishermen draw long, plastic nets attached to sticks through the water to gather cysts, filling sacks with hundreds of pounds on a good day.
Islambek Shumomurodov said he earns about $1.50 for every pound of Aral Sea cysts he gathers. The annual household income in Uzbekistan is around $1,600.
“Some people even buy new houses and cars from working here,” Shumomurodov said.
A food supply under threat
Although Uzbekistan’s brine shrimp production represents just a fraction of Utah’s output, the crustaceans created an economic opportunity after the Aral Sea’s traditional fishery shriveled.
The Aral Sea, like the Great Salt Lake, has declined significantly from agricultural demand and human water consumption. Once a freshwater lake teeming with fish, the Uzbek portion of the Aral turned saline — a trend scientists don’t expect will change.
Neighboring Kazakhstan spent millions damming off their portion of the North Aral Sea to keep the freshwater fishery viable. Brine shrimp, which likely hitchhiked to the region as cysts stuck to the feathers of visiting shorebirds, are the only creatures with commercial value that are able to survive in the shrinking southern Uzbek portion of the lake.
But Uzbekistan has taken few conservation measures, and its lake continues to get saltier and saltier.
“It’s just a matter of years now before [the Uzbek side of] the Aral Sea can no longer support brine shrimp,” said Ablatdiyn Musaev, a biologist at the Uzbek Academy of Sciences.
Scientists sounded similar alarms about the Great Salt Lake in the last decade, including John Luft, manager of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, the state agency that monitors the lake’s health, from brine shrimp to brine flies to birds.
“There was a real concern,” said Luft, whose program’s research is entirely funded by fees collected from the brine shrimp industry.
Despite years of warnings from experts like Luft, the lake dropped to a record-low elevation in 2021 and then again in 2022.
The 2022-2023 Great Salt Lake brine shrimp harvest, which runs from October through January, gathered 19.6 million pounds of cysts. That’s about two-thirds of what was collected the season prior, and the smallest harvest since 2008.
The quality of the lake’s cysts also suffered. Great Salt Lake brine shrimp usually have a high hatchability rate at around 90% compared to 60% seen in shrimp from other parts of the world, Luft said.
“You’ve got to have good conditions” for female shrimp to produce cysts with high hatchability, Luft said, “and they were stressed.”
Brine shrimp thrive in water that’s between 11% and 14% salt, but by the end of 2022, the Great Salt Lake’s salinity had spiked to nearly 19%.
“I actually thought we’d just watch things get really bad,” Luft said, “and report it had collapsed.”
Instead, state resource managers filled in a breach through a rock-filled causeway bisecting the lake to keep water in the hyper-saline northern half from mixing with the southern half.
That, along with record-breaking spring runoff, pulled the lake’s ecosystem and its brine shrimp back from the brink. But the Great Salt Lake still has a long way to go. Utah would need to see at least three more record-setting winters in a row to get the lake to a sustainable elevation.
“As the health of the lake goes,” Hawkes said, “so goes our industry.”
Could Utah’s brine shrimp industry get trounced by Asia?
Researchers in Uzbekistan are currently developing methods to save their own brine shrimp industry by raising the crustaceans in small ponds. Results so far hold promise — soil in the Aral Sea region has a high salt content the shrimp like.
Other Asian countries are also quickly ramping up production through pond-based agriculture, with operations already up and running in Vietnam and Thailand.
Iran hopes to more than quintuple the country's annual output of cysts in the next five years, according to Naser Agh, an Iranian biologist and member of the Steering Committee of International Artemia Aquaculture Consortium who has spearheaded the development of Iran’s cyst production.
“There is an opportunity for Asian countries to meet the needs of the growing aquaculture industry,” Agh said.
Many Asian farms raise a new breed of brine shrimp developed by scientists. The cysts are more productive — and fetch a higher price on the market.
“We do hope our aquaculture can one day compete with Utah,” said Musaev, smirking in acknowledgment of what a tall task that will be.
But the Great Salt Lake’s brine shrimp experts aren’t worried. They say farmed ponds could never match Utah’s production.
Vast flocks of migrating birds also feed on the brine shrimp buffet each year, Luft noted, and there’s still plenty of shrimp to go around. Eared grebes alone gobble down around 25,000 shrimp per bird each day, and 5 million of those birds visit the Great Salt Lake each year around the same time boats harvest cysts.
“And it’s not having an impact on the [shrimp] population,” Luft said. “Pretty impressive. In a pond setting, you’re not going to get that volume.”
Farmed cysts are also more expensive to produce than those grown naturally in a lake. But Hawkes said he’s happy to see more places producing brine shrimp.
“We would like to see the Aral Sea succeed,” he said. “It helps sustain that global food supply.”
Aquaculture outfits now often start production with farm-raised cysts, mainly from Asia, which initially boost productivity before switching to cheaper cysts from the Great Salt Lake, according to Patrick Sorgeloos, emeritus professor of aquaculture at Belgium’s Ghent University.
Sorgeloos predicted cyst production beyond Utah will grow exponentially in the coming decades, offering the world a potential backup plan if the Great Salt Lake’s productivity declines. Sorgeloos added that he doesn’t expect farm-raised brine shrimp will ever produce the same volume of cysts as those in natural salt lakes.
He also noted that Asia is an ideal place to farm brine shrimp because the climate is favorable to the shrimp and labor costs are much lower than the United States. Still, he stressed the need for players across the global brine shrimp industry to adapt to a changing world with less water.
“Western countries,” Sorgeloos said, speaking about Utah’s shrimp industry, “... should be anticipating what the opportunities are for alternative solutions.”
After another day without finding a payload of brine shrimp, Mirzamuratov took his turn inspecting the shoreline for the ragtag group of Uzbek fishermen.
He pulled on a pair of big rubber boots and drove a motorcycle down toward the water. A quick inspection revealed the wind still hadn’t blown in enough cysts to bother returning to work.
“I heard rumors that brine shrimp might disappear one day, but I wasn’t sure if they were true,” Mirzamuratov said, adding he’d gladly leave the Aral Sea behind and work at experimental brine shrimp farms where the conditions are more predictable and less grueling.
Instead of casting his net, Mirzamuratov turned back to the small shack he winters in with five other men each year. Together they sat by a rusty wood stove, waiting through another long night for the masses of brine shrimp to return.
KSL-TV photographer Jeff Dahdah contributed to this report.