Posted by: genghisprawn | December 22, 2008

Lobsters in the Great Salt Lake

A Red Lobster diner in Salt Lake City: Not a home-grown industry, I’m afraid.

(Photo Source)

In the truly excellent Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America (pp. 107-108), Kim Todd writes:

With the transcontinental railroad cabling one coast to the other in 1869, and shipping methods improving all the time, fish could be carried farther and faster than before.  Ponds and lakes, rather than being viewed as complex ecosystems, were treated as outdoor aquariums waiting to be filled.  Once walled in by the boundaries of their pools or watersheds, now eastern fish traveled west, western fish journeyed east, English fish came to the United States, American fish swam through streams in Australia.  Leather carp were whisked from Washington, D.C., to Scotland; Lake Michigan whitefish found themselves in New Zealand.  German carp settled in Alabama, while Hawaiian mullet traveled to the mainland.  Between 1874 and 1880 the Fish Commission transported more than four million California salmon to foreign countries, including Canada, England, France, Holland, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and the Sandwich Islands.

These early attempts … were a race against death.  On one shipment of live lobsters from Maine to California, the fish culturists juggled sponges, damp straw, salt water, and blocks of ice in an effort to keep their charges cool, damp, and alive.  Then the lid of one aquarium slid shut, suffocating all the crustaceans inside.  As the trip continued, still more died.  The fish culturists dropped off one of their few remaining pairs of lobsters in Utah to breed in the Great Salt Lake.  By the time the lobsters reached California, only four lingered to be released from a wharf in Oakland.

Emphasis mine.  Obviously, they didn’t take, but the odds were long to begin with.  According to Stephens, “During the late 1800’s, [Great Salt Lake] salinity ranged from about 13 to 23 percent.”  The American lobster (Homarus americanus, the species that was most likely ferried west on this fateful journey) is usually considered stenohaline and intolerant of salinities <25‰ (Dall).  It’s worth noting that estuarine Homarus populations may be subjected to considerably lower salinities in times of high freshwater input.  Research has established that 50 % lethal salinities (LS50 values) in Homarus range “from approximately 15-17‰ in larvae to approximately 12‰ in postlarvae and 10‰ in adults” (Charmantier et al.).  On the other hand, few researchers seem to have looked into salinity maxima.  I would hazard an upper tolerance not much higher than 37‰ or so.  Mind the units.

(Photo Source)

Had our lobsters come a century or so later, they might have had a more sporting chance.  A causeway completed in 1959 effectively divided the Lake into a southern half subject to the bulk of freshwater input (subsequent salinity from 6-28%), and a saltier northern half (16-29%) (Stephens).  In the mid-1980s, the Lake’s resident brine flies (Ephydra spp.) and brine shrimp (Artemia franciscana, actually Branchiopods and not Malacostracans like true shrimp) were joined for the first time by fish:

During 1986, the decreased salinity of the south part [to “about 6 percent”] allowed a breeding population of rainwater killifish, Lucania parva (Baird) to enter the lake near Stansbury Island. The 4-cm-long fish are members of the Cyprinodontidae family and are commonly found in brackish and slightly saline waters. This is the first documented report of fish living in Great Salt Lake in recorded history.

Even the New York Times took heed; an article from August of that year spoke of killifish frolicking in salinities “less than 4 percent”.  Alas, it was too good to last for long.  Stephens continues:

As the total precipitation during 1987 at Salt Lake City was about 80 percent of average and the salinity of the southern part had increased to 7.2 percent by March 1988, the future of fish in Great Salt Lake is tenuous.

By now, I suppose, the Great Salt Lake is back to its plain old hypersaline self again … bereft of fish — and lobsters.


Charmantier, G., Haond, C., Lignot, J., & Charmantier-Daures, M. (2001). Ecophysiological adaptation to salinity throughout a life cycle: a review in homarid lobsters. J Exp Biol, 204(5), 967-977.

Dall, W. (1970). Osmoregulation in the lobster Homarus americanus. J. Fish. Res. Board Can. 27: 1123–1130.

Stephens, D. W. (1990). Changes in lake levels, salinity and the biological community of Great Salt Lake (Utah, USA), 1847–1987. Hydrobiologia, 197(1), 139-146. doi: 10.1007/BF00026946.

Todd, K. (2002). Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotic Species in America (p. 302). W. W. Norton & Company.


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