How the tiny brine shrimp can help protect the Great Salt Lake

A conversation with the sixth-grade activists behind Utah’s new state crustacean.

On March 17, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill making Artemia franciscana, the brine shrimp, Utah’s official state crustacean. The designation, inspired by the activism of a sixth-grade classroom, is meant to draw attention to a monumental problem — the decline of the Great Salt Lake — through something relatable: a tiny creature under serious threat.

Crustaceans such as crabs, shrimp and barnacles belong to a large, diverse group of mainly aquatic arthropods, or invertebrates with exoskeletons. Fully grown brine shrimp are just half an inch long, but they comprise a critical part of the food web of the Great Salt Lake; birds such as eared grebes eat 20,000-30,000 of them per day.


Brine shrimp are also important to Utah’s economy: When temperatures drop in the winter, adult shrimp release dormant eggs called cysts, which float on the surface of the lake. These cysts are harvested and exported around the world to be used as fish food in commercial aquaculture, bringing up to $60 million to Utah every year.

Josh Craner teaches in his classroom at Emerson Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah.

But the Great Salt Lake is rapidly shrinking, and its increasing salinity has thrown the brine shrimp’s life cycle out of whack. According to Bonnie Baxter, director of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute, the lake’s high salinity caused the shrimp to release some of their cysts early last summer. That means they could hatch before winter’s over, and those baby shrimp won’t survive. “The invertebrates of the lake are struggling,” said Baxter. “This year is going to be critical for watching the lake’s biology.”

Sixth-graders at Salt Lake City’s Emerson Elementary School and their teacher, Josh Craner, studied brine shrimp in science class and worked with state Rep. Rosemary Lesser to introduce the bill that codified the brine shrimp’s importance into state law. High Country News spoke with Craner and two students, Jesse Selman and Maurine Aldrich, both 11, about why they decided to organize on the tiny creature’s behalf, and about what else needs to be done to protect the state’s ecosystem from climate change.

Left to right, Maurine Aldrich, Josh Craner, Camila Reza, Shayla Sissoko, Jameson Hunt and Jesse Selman pose for a photograph in their classroom. Reza, Sissoko and Hunt delivered a presentation on brine shrimp to the Utah Senate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: For readers who don’t know much about brine shrimp, how would you describe them?

Maurine Aldrich: Brine shrimp are small little pink creatures that float around in the salty water. They’re really funny little creatures. It looks like they’re swimming upside-down sometimes.

HCN: Why are brine shrimp important?

Jesse Selman: The brine shrimp are a keystone species for the Great Salt Lake. They eat the algae that grows in the Great Salt Lake, so that it doesn’t overtake the lake. They also keep the water fresher than it would otherwise be. They’re really unique and amazing.

Maurine: The birds migrating over the lake, millions of birds, eat the shrimp. And the shrimp release cysts that we (in Utah) sell for fishing, which makes a lot of money. It’s crazy how the consequences of something so small can just be so big.

It’s crazy how the consequences of something so small can just be so big.

Shayla Sissoko holds a microscope to the class’ brine shrimp.

HCN: This was the second attempt to pass the state crustacean bill; last year, the Legislature ran out of time. What was this year’s process to make the brine shrimp the state crustacean?

Jesse: First, for our science topics, we learned about the Great Salt Lake. We took a field trip there and learned about the lake and how the brine shrimp survive and how important they are. But when we went there, we didn’t even reach the water because it was too far. (Editor’s note: The Great Salt Lake has receded so much that, in many places, visitors have to walk at least half a mile from its former shoreline to reach the water.)

Josh Craner: After that, the legislative part of the process had two different phases. First, all the kids wrote letters to Rep. Lesser from Ogden, asking her if she would sponsor the bill again. She agreed to it. Then we went to the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, and a few kids gave a speech there. We passed that. Then Rep. Lesser presented on the House floor, and we passed that, though we did get 24 no’s, which we were kind of surprised about. Then we went to the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and then it passed the Senate around noon on the very last day of the legislative session.


A group photo of the whole sixth-grade class after the bill was passed. Right, a picture of the cake they had to celebrate the win.
Courtesy of Josh Craner


HCN: One lawmaker who voted against the bill, Rep. Casey Snider, said that he voted against it because it didn’t do enough to help the Great Salt Lake. Why do you think it matters, even though it doesn’t directly conserve the shrimp or the lake?

Craner: The symbols we choose are important to our state and our ecosystems. A lot of states can’t have a state crustacean because they don’t have crustaceans at all, so it’s a special and unique thing for us as a state to have a saltwater crustacean.

So even though this doesn’t change policy, it helps people become more aware of the brine shrimp, and it gives them something to fight for with the lake. The lake is a huge thing. It’s hard to fathom all the numbers and dollars (that are referenced in statistics). But it is possible to fathom an organism. We even have brine shrimp in our classroom. We feed them, we watch them reproduce. This little organism is something the students can connect to, and our hope is that it will help other children connect to it in the future to hopefully save our brine shrimp, now that we’ve claimed them as a symbol for our state.

HCN: Why is it important to you, as young people, to save brine shrimp and the Great Salt Lake?

Maurine: It’s really important to think about the environment. If the lake dries up, it could blow toxic dust into our air in Salt Lake City.

Jesse: The lake also really affects the snow in our mountains. So if it dries up, that would be a big deal for skiers and snowboarders. But the snow is also really important for the fresh water that we drink — and the nice weather.

Also, the city we live in, Salt Lake City, is literally named after the Great Salt Lake. So if it dried up, it would be kind of stupid and funny. We’d have a city named after a pile of dirt.

Jesse Selman and Maurine Aldrich by the class brine shrimp.

Caroline Tracey is the climate justice fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.