Shellfish for the Celestial Empire

The Rise and Fall of Commercial Abalone Fishing in California

In the 1800s, when California was captivated by gold fever, a small group of Chinese immigrants recognized the fortune to be made from the untapped resources along the state’s coast, particularly from harvesting the black abalone of southern and Baja California. These immigrants, with skills from humble beginnings in a traditional Chinese fishing province, founded California’s commercial abalone industry, and led its growth and expansion for several decades. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, their successful livelihood was stolen from them through targeted legislation of the U.S. and California governments.

Today, the physical evidence of historical Chinese abalone fishing on the mainland has been erased by development. On California’s Channel Islands, however, remnants of temporary abalone collecting and processing camps lie scattered along the coastlines. These sites hold a treasure trove of information, stories, lifeways, and history. Braje has excavated many of these sites and uses them to explore the history of Chinese abalone fishing, presenting a microcosm of the broader history of Chinese immigrants in America—their struggles, their successes, the institutionalized racism they faced, and the unique ways in which they helped to shape the identity of the United States. 

Todd J. Braje is an associate professor of anthropology at San Diego State University. 

Table of Contents:
List of Figures
List of Tables
Preface and Acknowledgments
1. Fish and Fisheries in Southern California: A History of Collapse
2. Of Anchors, Admirals, and Artifice: The Chinese before Columbus?
3. Chinese History and the Exodus to Gold Mountain
4. Chinese Immigrants in the Wild West
5. The Archaeology of Chinese Abalone Fishing in Southern California
6. Nineteenth-Century Abalone Fishing on California’s Channel Islands: The Archaeology of Johnsons Lee and Point Bennett
7. A March toward Exclusion: Twilight of the Chinese Abalone Fishery
8. An Enduring Legacy?


Praise and Reviews:

“Although other authors have documented aspects of the rise and fall of commercial abalone fishing, to my knowledge none has the particular focus of Braje’s book: the social context of the industry and links to a deeper history. The book will have a significant impact in the fields of conservation of marine resources and marine habitat restoration.”
—Michael A. Glassow, Professor Emeritus and Research Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara 

“A new and unique contribution to historical archaeology, the historical archaeologies of Chinese immigrants in the Americas, zooarchaeology, environmental archaeology, historical ecology, and western history. An innovative piece of work.”
—Mark Warner, professor of anthropology and department chair, University of Idaho

“This is archaeology with a purpose, committed not only to documenting the decline of an ecosystem, but also contributing to its restoration and to communicating this mission with wider academic and public audiences. This is a call to arms, addressing historical wrongs and mapping a sustainable future; it is fascinating, highly readable and recommended.” —Antiquity

“An informative and enjoyable read for public and scientific audiences alike. Based on his research focused on the nineteenth-century commercial Chinese abalone fishing industry in California, Braje convincingly makes the argument that the deep time perspective historical ecology can provide should be embraced by marine ecologists, fisheries biologists, resource managers, and policy makers to help address modern ecological issues. … [The book] sends a powerful message about the immediate need for an interdisciplinary approach to our world’s most pressing ecological challenges.”—California Archaeology