Brine shrimp—a crustacean native to Great Salt Lake—are about a centimeter in size. This makes them the largest animals that live in Great Salt Lake’s waters. Brine Shrimp survive by feeding on algae and are consumed by other crustaceans, fish, and birds around the globe. Each year, tens of millions of birds stop at Great Salt Lake to feed on brine shrimp and their cysts (eggs) before continuing on their migratory path. Meanwhile, farmed shrimp and fish around the globe are fed brine shrimp harvested from the Lake. Although Great Salt Lake’s shrimp are small, they play an outsized role in economies and ecosystems around  the globe–and they depend on the health of Great Salt Lake for their very survival. 

Every year, birds of 338 species pause to breed, rest, and feed on brine shrimp before continuing their journey to destinations like Siberia, the Canadian Maritimes, and Central and South America. The  Great Salt Lake is a designated crucial stopover spot for several bird species that would likely become endangered without the lake, such as the Eared Grebe, Wilson’s Phalarope, American Avocet, and Black-Necked Stilt. Approximately 90% of North America’s Eared Grebe population relies on Great Salt Lake, where they eat up to 30 thousand brine shrimp each day. Without brine shrimp to provide them the energy they need for migration and reproduction, many bird populations would plummet towards extinction. 

Great Salt Lake is the world’s single largest source of brine shrimp, accounting for approximately 45% of the world’s annual supply of brine shrimp eggs. As brine shrimp habitat decreases worldwide, Utah’s industry provides a critical source of cysts to shrimp and fish farms in developing nations such as Ecuador, Israel, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In Utah alone, the brine shrimp fishing industry generates $60 million annually. More importantly, the shrimp from Great Salt Lake help produce 20 billion pounds of seafood a year, which feeds tens of millions of people in all corners of the world. 

In 2022, the Great Salt Lake reached record lows, causing salinity levels to spike which significantly decreased algae production and reproductive levels of brine shrimp. While brine shrimp are quite resilient to changing salinity levels and temperatures, as lake levels drop, there is a threshold at which even they are not immune. According to the Utah DNR, during the 2022–23 harvest season, only “roughly 19 million pounds of cysts were harvested.” This is about 54% of the ten-year average. A decline in these shrimp’s population will disrupt the delicate balance of not only local but also global ecosystems and economies, impacting millions reliant on the lake’s resources. 

According to Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, “The value of biodiversity is that it makes our ecosystems more resilient, which is a prerequisite for stable societies; its wanton destruction is akin to setting fire to our lifeboat.” The declining health of the Great Salt Lake not only disrupts its ecological integrity, but also threatens the unique species that call it home. Brine shrimp are the keystone species of Great Salt Lake’s complex, fluctuating ecosystem. Allowing the loss of these tiny, priceless creatures will affect global and local economies, seafood production in developing nations, and the lifeline for millions of birds migrating the globe. 

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