Shellfish for the Celestial Empire: A Deep History of the Birth, Collapse, and Future of Abalone Fishing in California

Lecture | October 3 | 12-1 p.m. | 101 2251 College (Archaeological Research Facility)

 Todd J. Braje, Irvine Chair of Anthropology and Associate Curator, California Academy of Sciences

 Archaeological Research Facility

In the midst of the California Gold Rush, a small group of enterprising Chinese immigrants recognized untapped resources along our state’s coast. Freed from both human and sea otter predation for decades, coastal California was teeming with abalone stocks and commercial fishing of several species rose to become a multimillion dollar industry. By the late twentieth century, however, overfishing, disease, and mismanagement combined to end all commercial abalone fishing along North America’s Pacific Coast and drive several species to the brink of extinction. The culmination of over a decade of field, archival, and laboratory work, this talk explores the history of Chinese abalone fishing in southern California, using the Northern Channel Islands as a case study. It is not, however, a tertiary story of nineteenth-century California. It is an analogy for the broader history of Chinese immigrants in America—their struggles, their successes, the institutionalized racism they faced, and the unique ways in which they shaped the identity of our nation. It is also a microcosm for our world’s fisheries. The story of ecological dysfunction, overharvesting, and eventual collapse is one that can be told with countless species worldwide. The crisis facing Pacific Coast abalone parallels the collapse of many of the most important and productive fisheries around the world. The key to avoiding future crises and restoring our degraded marine ecosystems may be in looking to the past.