In a landlocked state 600 miles from the nearest ocean, fleets of commercial fishermen compete for a creature that in spite of its minuscule size makes for quite a fish tale.
Brine shrimp, or artemia, are one of the few organisms that can live in Utah's Great Salt Lake, which has a salt content as much as five times that of the ocean. The tiny creatures — which resemble feathery, nearly transparent bugs pulsating in the water — grow to less than a half-inch in length as adults. Under perfect conditions, an adult female can live as long as three months and produce as many as 300 tiny eggs — 50 can fit on the head of a pin — every four days.
It's this bounty of eggs that prompts nearly two dozen companies to fork over $10,000 for each permit to skim brine shrimp eggs from the surface of the lake from October through January.
Brine shrimp eggs are used to feed nearly all table shrimp sold throughout the world. They also are used as food for other farmed fish, crabs and exotic fish in aquariums. And countless children likely have been disappointed over the years after ordering "magical sea monkeys" from the back of comic books to find that brine shrimp don't look like monkeys and don't wear crowns on their heads.
For about four months, or until the State Division of Wildlife Resources closes the harvest season, 22 companies vie for position on the lake. Brine shrimp eggs float to the surface of the lake in streaks. Planes spot the eggs from overhead, radioing locations to the boats, most of which leave from the marina at Antelope Island State Park.
That $10,000 license buys the right to place one marker buoy. When a boat places a buoy, it's unlawful for another boat to come within 300 yards, said Clay Perschon, program manager for the division's Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project. There are 79 licenses available.
The availability of eggs on the lake varies greatly from year to year, Perschon said. Specific lake and weather conditions need to occur for the eggs to float to the surface. When lake, weather and eggs cooperate, the companies must act quickly, and that means heavy competition.
If there are arguments over these floating exclusivity rights, the wildlife resources division is called in.
"Over the years they've rammed their boats into each other. They've assaulted each other," Perschon said. "It's like most things in life. It's competitive."
The eggs are harvested in a manner similar to cleaning up an oil spill. Booms are used to surround the "slick" of eggs, which includes eggs, dead shrimp, algae and water. This biomass then is sucked into sacks. Some eggs are also gathered from along the lake's shores.
As of Jan. 12, more than 9 million pounds of biomass has been taken off the lake this season, according to the division. About a quarter of that amount is likely to turn out to be salable eggs, Perschon said.
After the eggs are taken from the lake, they are cleaned, frozen, brined, tested and dried, and each company has its own way. Companies are reluctant to discuss the specifics of their processing, and some hold patents on parts of the process — drying in particular.
"It's one of the most paranoid businesses that I've been in in my life," said Rob Bero, a production manager with Great Lake Artemia.
Processing can make or break the eggs. Egg prices vary on hatch rate, and eggs must be handled carefully to ensure a higher hatch rate, he said.
"From the time you take that egg out of the lake, all you can do is hurt it," Bero said.
But if handled and stored properly, the magic of brine shrimp is they can stay in egg form, or cyst, for years.
"They're a remarkable creature. Those cysts are incredibly durable," Perschon said.
Core samples of lake bed that have been dry for years, when rehydrated with salt water, can yield live brine shrimp, he said.
The eggs are rehydrated by the buyer, and the hatched shrimp then used as feed. Part of the appeal of brine shrimp as food is they can be grown to whatever size would be most appetizing to the various creatures that eat them.
Perschon and his crew test the lake constantly throughout the season. If the number of cysts or eggs per liter of water falls below 21, the harvest is stopped for the year to maintain the population.
During the 1999-2000 season, the eggs were so scarce no harvesting was allowed in the southern arm of the lake. Only about 2.6 million pounds of biomass was taken that year.
While the next three seasons were record years on the lake, that one bad season left its mark, said Don Leonard, president of the Utah Artemia Association, the brine shrimping trade association.
"Up until about six or seven years ago, Great Salt Lake had as much as 90 percent of the international market. At the present time, we're fighting to hold onto 45 or 50 percent," Leonard said.
When shrimpers were cut off from harvesting in 1999, many of their buyers turned to brine shrimp from China and Russia, he said. Like other overseas ventures, shrimpers in those countries shrimp at much lower cost and provide a less expensive product.
The fickle nature of shrimping on the Great Salt Lake, where even a slight wind can churn up the water and submerge the eggs, makes it an expensive business, Leonard said.
Add to that the cost of fuel for boats and spotter planes and repairs on boats damaged by salt corrosion, he said.
Also the shrimpers must pay 3.75 cents per pound of unprocessed product harvested to the state. Last year, this royalty brought in $418,700, said Charlie Roberts, a spokesman for the Utah Tax Commission.
But the species of brine shrimp in Great Salt Lake, Artemia franciscana, is considered among the best in the world, and some fish farms only want the best, Bero said.
If egg quality and market allow, eggs from Utah can fetch from about $10 a pound to more than $20 a pound, Bero said.
Over the past 20 years, an average of 2.4 million pounds of eggs have been taken off the lake each year. At a price of $12 a pound, that's a $28 million business.
Not bad for some sea monkeys.