Utah Brine Shrimp Feed Asia Industry

Utah Brine Shrimp Feed Asia Industry.

KUANTAN, Malaysia — Sprawling across a swampy coastal plain overlooking the South China Sea is a bustling aquaculture operation that relies on an increasingly rare product from Utah.

Glistening in the fierce tropical sun are 800 acres of shallow ponds where Song Cheng Enterprises each year raises about 30 million tiger prawns — a large and tasty shrimp shipped frozen to Japanese restaurants. Eel, turtle and a medium-size white fish also are grown here.

The success of Song Cheng’s prawn operation — and most of the world’s other large prawn farms — depends on brine shrimp harvested from the Great Salt Lake. But, once abundant in Utah’s land-locked lake, brine shrimp numbers have fallen recently, creating shortages for the prawn industry and raising concerns about the long-term health of the ecosystem.

Dried but still fertile eggs of Utah’s tiny shrimp, each the size of a grain of sand, arrive here sealed inside what looks like one-pound coffee cans. They are poured into large black plastic tubs filled with warm sea water. Eighteen hours later, shrimp so small they are barely visible begin emerging from their shells. They are fed immediately to hungry young prawns.

“They are a complete diet,” says Hank Bauman, the Ohio-born consultant who oversees the prawn hatchery for Song Cheng. “They are really good for them.”

Song Cheng’s farm is in a remote area of mangrove swamps and patches of scrubby tropical forest about an hour’s drive south of Kuantan — a city of about 200,000 people on Malaysia’s mostly rural eastern coast.

Bauman works in a large, one-story building filled with long, narrow concrete tanks where he tends each new generation of prawns. It resembles many trout hatcheries in the United States. His daily attire is shorts, a T-shirt and rubber thongs.

“I have always loved the water,” says the 42-year-old prawn expert, who worked previously in Hawaii and the Philippines. “If I’m not working in it, I’m swimming or diving.”

In his sparse office at the back of the hatchery are dozens of cans imported from Utah. The label on each reads: “Sun Supreme — 100 percent Pure Artemia Cysts From The Great Salt Lake.”

Artemia is the scientific name for brine shrimp. “Cysts” are the amazingly durable eggs they produce in the fall when the lake’s water is becoming too cold for shrimp to survive. These eggs float on the surface all winter and hatch when the water warms again in the spring.

A drawing on the can’s label shows a small airplane with pontoons touching down on a blue lake surrounded by emerald green hills. It looks more like Alaska than northern Utah.

While brine shrimp are an easy-to-raise and nutritious food, they are more expensive than most processed feeds, Bauman says. And poor brine shrimp harvests the last two years, combined with the recent devaluation of Malaysia’s currency, have sent prices even higher. A can of cysts that once cost $8 to $10 now sells for $30 to $35.

Brine shrimp are fed to prawns between the seventh and 26th days of their lives, Bauman says. This is a critical period when the fast-growing prawns need an energy-boost not available from other commercial feeds. He estimates a single prawn will consume 1,750 brine shrimp during this 2 1/2 week period.

The young prawns are moved into large, open-air ponds after the 26th day where they spend the rest of their lives eating a specially formulated diet. Once in the pond, it takes 150 to 160 days for prawns to grow to a marketable size of about five to six inches.

The 30 million prawns raised by Song Cheng each year will consume about 52.5 billion brine shrimp. And this is only one medium-size operation. Dozens of similar hatcheries are located around the globe, and some of the largest farms in Indonesia and Thailand are feeding brine shrimp to 100 million tiger prawns a year.

Many Utahns still think of the brine shrimp industry the way it was in the 1950s and 1960s — a couple of boats that collected brine shrimp eggs for people raising tropical fish.

But the development of large-scale prawn operations in Southeast Asia and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s has created a huge demand for brine shrimp eggs and transformed the Utah industry.

Between 80 percent and 85 percent of the brine shrimp eggs taken from the Great Salt Lake last winter were sold as prawn feed, says Don Leonard, executive director of the Utah Artemia Association — a trade organization representing about 20 of the 32 companies collecting brine shrimp from the lake.

The remaining 15 percent to 20 percent of the Utah brine shrimp harvest is used as feed for tropical fish and fish raised in hatcheries for meat.

Annual revenues from the sale of Great Salt Lake brine shrimp range between $12 million and $20 million, depending on fluctuating prices, egg quality and market demand, Leonard says.

Competition among the brine shrimp companies has become so intense they regularly use helicopters to spot the tell-tale red stain created by masses of eggs floating on the lake. Special boats have been designed to rapidly skim eggs off the water’s surface, and machinery developed to clean, dry and package them.

Although brine shrimp are found in other salty lakes around the world, Leonard says Great Salt Lake producers have dominated the market by offering a high-quality product at a reasonable price.

Such glowing praise is expected from an industry spokesman. But Bauman says he experimented with brine shrimp from other areas and found none as reliable as the Great Salt Lake.

Serious problems, though, face prawn farmers and brine shrimp collectors.

Large-scale prawn farmers face mounting criticism from environmentalists for damaging tropical coastal areas. Ponds usually last only six or seven years before filling with so much bacteria and sludge the prawns cannot survive. The industry’s response has been to abandon old ponds and move to new areas. Sections of Thailand and several other countries have been damaged by this migratory aquaculture.

Song Cheng hopes to avoid this problem by lining its new ponds with plastic so they can be cleaned every several years, Bauman says. The company also is experimenting with a technique familiar to almost every farmer: crop rotation. He hopes that alternating fish, eel and prawns will extend the life of each pond.

Utah brine shrimp collectors have their own headaches. A miserable harvest last winter on the Great Salt Lake has left many unable to pay their bills. The outlook for next winter’s harvest is bleak.

The Great Salt Lake yielded record harvests of about 14.7 million pounds of brine shrimp eggs in the winters of 1995-1996 and again in 1996-1997. But last year, far fewer eggs have been produced. To avoid “overfishing,” the harvest was restricted to about 4.5 million pounds.

A long-term drop in brine shrimp numbers in the Great Salt Lake would have devastating ecological impacts far beyond Utah’s borders.

Millions of shore birds stop at the lake during spring and fall migrations to gorge themselves on the tiny shrimp. Loss of this vital food supply could create serious problems for many bird species.

Experts blame the decline in brine shrimp on two things.

First, the recent cycle of wet weather brought a torrent of fresh water into the lake, reducing salinity in most areas below the level favored by brine shrimp.

A second and potentially more serious problem was identified recently by a team of state and federal scientists. Their studies indicate Union Pacific’s rock and earthen railroad causeway across the middle of the lake may have disrupted the circulation of salty water.

Salt apparently is flowing out of the lake’s south arm — where the brine shrimp once were abundant — and being trapped in the smaller north arm. The north arm now is too salty for the tiny crustaceans to survive, and the south arm is becoming too fresh for them. Even if the weather turns dry, the salt imbalance may remain.

Union Pacific was asked this month to clean dirt and rock from two 15-foot-wide culverts through the causeway to improve water flow. The state intends to improve a 300-foot-wide opening it maintains in the causeway, says Jim Carter, leader of a state team updating the Great Salt Lake management plan.

This is only a first step, Carter says. Additional changes likely will be needed to solve the salt-circulation problem.

Advertisements posted on the Internet by brine shrimp companies show the the Great Salt Lake’s problems are being felt worldwide. In addition to higher prices, some companies are limiting the number of eggs they will sell per customer. And eggs from Russia, China and Vietnam are pouring into the market.

The situation worries Leonard. Heavy demand from the prawn farms and a shortage of Utah brine shrimp eggs creates an inviting opportunity for producers in other areas to grab part of the lucrative market. And inexpensive foreign eggs are holding down prices for the relatively few eggs Utah brine shrimpers have available for sale.

Soaring prices and uncertainty about the availability of brine shrimp eggs have Bauman worried, too. He is searching for ways to cut back on the use of brine shrimp and says everyone in the industry is doing the same.

“If we can find another product that works as well and is cheaper, that’s what we’ll use,” he says.

Publication: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Publication Date: 24-MAY-98

Author: Woolf, Jim

(c) 1998, The Salt Lake Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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