In Uzbekistan, the race is on to sustain the world’s growing aquaculture industry

Aquaculture heavily depends on a small creature called brine shrimp, whose natural habitats are under threat. Scientists believe the site of an environmental disaster in Uzbekistan can now help produce more shrimp to help feed the planet.

The World

An earlier version of this story appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER. Read the original story here. The Great Salt Lake Collaborative provided funding.

When Miyrbek Mirzamuratov was a kid in the 1970s, he went to a summer camp in Uzbekistan each year on the shore of the Aral Sea — until recently, the world’s fourth-largest lake.

Mirzamuratov and the other campers, known as Young Pioneers, spent the summers watching Soviet films at the camp’s cinema and wading along the sandy beach.

Children play on a rusty boat in Moynaq, Uzbekistan. Although the Aral Sea region is often referred to as one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters, the lake’s salty waters still abound with life in the form of brine shrimp, which are a key food source in the world’s growing aquaculture industry.Levi Bridges/The World

But each year, the lake  shrunk further away from the camp. As the waters receded, the facility closed and was torn down.

The beach where Mirzamuratov once played was swallowed by the surrounding desert.

“We always thought the water would come back someday. We never worried about it as kids,” Mirzamuratov said. 

Soviet authorities diverted the lake’s main tributaries to feed Uzbekistan’s growing agriculture industry. In just a few decades, the lake receded so much that it became saline, killing off all the fish.

The dry lakebed of the Aral Sea in western Uzbekistan. Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, the Aral Sea shrunk dozens of miles from its former shoreline because its main tributaries were diverted to agriculture during the Soviet era.Levi Bridges/The World

Families like Mirzamuratov’s, who worked in the fishery, lost their jobs. 

Mirzamuratov made a living fishing in small lakes located in one of the main tributaries feeding the Aral Sea. 

But recently, as water levels continued to drop, fish disappeared there, too.

An unexpected opportunity

Kazakhstan spent millions damming off a portion of the North Aral Sea to keep the freshwater fishery viable. But on the lake’s southern end, in neighboring Uzbekistan, officials didn’t make strong conservation efforts.

Despite the inaction, life returned to the Uzbek side. Tiny brine shrimp, which likely hitchhiked to the region on the feathers of migrating birds, proliferated in the salty waters.

The shrimp’s eggs, commonly known as cysts, are used around the world as feed in aquaculture for farm-raised fish and prawns.

A seasonal encampment on the Aral Sea where workers sleep after long days gathering brine shrimp eggs, commonly known as cysts. Uzbek fishermen work shifts up to 36 hours when the wind blows the cysts to shore and camp in temperatures that can dip to as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.Levi Bridges/The World

Seafood is the main protein source for billions of people. And roughly half of it is now produced by aquaculture.

Brine shrimp have become such a crucial part of the world’s growing aquaculture industry that harvesting their cysts is a multi-million dollar industry.

Unemployed fishermen like Mirzamuratov went back to work gathering cysts on the Aral Sea, which has receded so far that the shoreline is now a half day’s drive from Uzbekistan’s former port of Moynaq.

Uzbek fisherman Miyrbek Mirzamuratov draws a long net through the Aral Sea to gather tiny brine shrimp cysts, part of a multi-million dollar industry that forms the backbone of the world’s aquaculture industry.Levi Bridges/The World

They draw long, plastic nets attached to sticks through the water to collect cysts, filling sacks with hundreds of pounds on a good day and working in winter temperatures that can dip as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Some people even buy new houses and cars from working here,” said brine shrimp fisherman Islambek Shumomurodov as he swirled a net through the water.

Solutions to new threats

But brine shrimp have a new vulnerability that threatens to jeopardize how we feed the planet. Salt lakes where they live are disappearing because of climate change and overuse of water.

The ecosystem of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, home to the world’s largest source of brine shrimp, nearly collapsed in 2022 because the lake dipped to record lows, largely from overconsumption of the state’s water resources for agriculture.

The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has continued to recede and become more saline for the same reason. 

Scientists believe it will soon become too salty even for brine shrimp to survive.

Biologist Ablatdiyn Musaev runs experiments in a tank full of little brine shrimp at the Uzbek Academy of Sciences. Researchers are studying how to raise brine shrimp in small man-made ponds because the natural salt lakes they live in are disappearing from climate change and overuse of water resources.Levi Bridges/The World

Uzbek and international researchers are now running experiments to learn how to successfully farm brine shrimp in small ponds to save their industry.

Results so far hold promise — soil in the Aral Sea region where the lake disappeared has a high salt content that the shrimp like.

“Farming brine shrimp isn’t rocket science,” said Ablatdiyn Musaev, an Uzbek Academy of Sciences biologist leading the research. “Unlike traditional aquaculture, for fish, you don’t need high-tech equipment or even a lot of water.”

The sun rises over the Aral Sea in western Uzbekistan. Scientists believe the lake will soon become too salty to support marine life which would deal a devastating blow to the local economy.Levi Bridges/The World

Other Asian countries are also ramping up production of cysts through pond-based agriculture.

Iran hopes to more than quintuple its annual cyst production in the next five years, according to Naser Agh, an Iranian biologist and member of the Steering Committee of the 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.

The parched lakebed in Uzbekistan, which has been called one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters, may also soon play a key role in helping to feed the world’s growing population. 

Leia Larsen contributed to this report.

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