Channel Islands Study Will Shed Light on Missing Piece of California History

Anthropology graduate students and professor hope to discover historical records of Chinese abalone fishermen on the Southern Channel Islands

Todd Braje, chair and professor of anthropology, was recently awarded a $360,000+ cooperative grant by the United States Navy to conduct a two-year study on the history and archaeology of nineteenth century Chinese abalone fishing on one of the southernmost of the Channel Islands.

Braje has previously conducted similar research on California’s Northern Channel Islands, culminating in a 2016 book, “Shellfish for the Celestial Empire: The Rise and Fall of Commercial Abalone Fishing in California.” 

The current project will allow Braje and his students to extend their archaeological field and historical documents investigations to the Southern Channel Islands and further investigate this fascinating time in California history.

“Climate change and sea level rise are quickly eroding these sites into the ocean,” Braje said. “The time is now to document these sites to better interpret, protect, and preserve them.”

It was at the dawn of the California Gold Rush that immigrant Chinese fishermen founded the first commercial abalone fishery in the state and grew the enterprise into a multimillion dollar, trans-Pacific trade. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, however, an economic downturn and growing anti-Chinese sentiments and racism at the highest levels of state and federal government coalesced to push Chinese fishermen out of the industry, effectively ending their involvement by the early twentieth century. 

Braje uses archaeological and historical investigations of Chinese abalone fishing to craft lessons of both environmental and social relevance for the modern world. By using geographical information systems (GIS) and GPS-based mapping equipment, Braje and his team of graduate student researchers will do high resolution mapping to pinpoint where materials are located on the island. 

While the Chinese abalone fishery lasted only 60 years, the archaeological record left behind serves as a powerful roadmap for the restoration and recovery of modern abalone communities today. This research highlights the rapidly changing kelp forest ecosystems in Southern California during a pivotal moment where commercial fisheries are ramping up. Today, these fisheries are under threat because of overfishing and climate change, and the past can help us better understand what they looked like and how we might better manage them into the future. 

Students have the opportunity to do research and fieldwork that trains them for careers and enhances their job growth. Juliette Meling, a graduate student in Braje’s lab who has been an archaeologist for the California State Parks in the Southern California region for the past nine years said, “I have a passion for sorting out the stories of the untold and making them known. Upcoming research will offer us the opportunity to further tell the story of the Chinese diaspora in Southern California and the impact this made on California's history.”

“One of the things that makes me really excited about this work is that we are bringing to light these lost stories that have been a footnote in California history,” Braje said. “Archaeology is one of these really interesting ways that we can better tell stories of these marginalized peoples.”

The story of Chinese abalone fishing also is a reminder of the deep and sordid history of anti-Asian discrimination in America, often overlooked or forgotten, and how, especially during times of economic, social, or political uncertainty, human groups often look for someone to blame. “Most people haven’t heard about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the extreme racism that Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans faced in this country for decades,” Braje said.

In late fall, Braje and students will begin the survey work.

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