Paper pub. date
April 2020
ISBN 9780870719882 (paperback)
ISBN 9780870719899 (ebook)
6 x 9, 296 pages. 25 B&W illustrations. Notes. Index.


The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California's Iconic Shellfish

Ann Vileisis

From rocky coves at Mendocino and Monterey to San Diego’s reefs, abalone have held a cherished place in California culture for millennia. Prized for iridescent shells and delectable meat, these unique shellfish inspired indigenous artisans, bohemian writers, California cuisine, and the popular sport of skin diving, but also became a highly coveted commercial commodity. Mistakenly regarded as an inexhaustible seafood, abalone ultimately became vulnerable to overfishing and early impacts of climate change.

As the first and only comprehensive history of these once abundant but now tragically imperiled shellfish, Abalone guides the reader through eras of discovery, exploitation, scientific inquiry, fierce disputes between sport and commercial divers, near-extinction, and determined recovery efforts. Combining rich cultural and culinary history with hard-minded marine science, grassroots activism, and gritty politics, Ann Vileisis chronicles the plight of California’s abalone species and the growing biological awareness that has become crucial to conserve these rare animals into the future.

Abalone reveals the challenges of reckoning with past misunderstandings, emerging science, and political intransigence, while underscoring the vulnerability of wild animals to human appetites and environmental change. An important contribution to the emerging field of marine environmental history, this is a must-read for scientists, conservationists, environmental historians, and all who remember abalone fondly.

About the author ANN VILEISIS is an award-winning independent scholar. Her books explore our human relationship with nature, food, and the environment through history, providing deeper perspective and insight into pressing modern-day issues. She is author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back and Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America’s Wetlands. Vileisis has spoken about her books to audiences across America.
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"A gracefully written, meticulously documented history of California’s celebrated but now endangered abalone."

Choice Magazine

People say that if you put a seashell to your ear you can hear the ocean. This never worked well with abalones until now. This well-informed, deeply felt, eloquently written book tells us, in a beautiful way, where abalones have been and where they—and the ocean—are headed. 

—Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and Becoming Wild

Not many writers are good enough to make a story about snails gripping, but Ann Vileisis makes her history and natural history of abalone sing. This exquisite mollusk biography tells how human desire, greed, and incompetence led to an irreplaceable creature's undoing. A truly marvelous, unexpected joy of a book. 

—Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at University of York and author of The Unnatural History of the Sea and The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea


Ann Vileisis’s new book, Abalone, is a brilliant and compelling story of loss and recovery, despair, hope, and uncertainty—a galvanizing narrative in this disturbing moment. Abalone is deeply researched and imaginatively written; I cannot wait to teach it!

—Char Miller, W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College and author of Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream


Ann Vileisis’s chronicle of the charismatic California abalone is terrific! This is a must-read for all who want to understand this iconic marine snail.

—Mike Schaadt, director emeritus, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium


Like the magical inside of an abalone shell, Ann Vileisis’s writing shimmers, and her book reflects a kaleidoscope of profound historical, biological, and cultural insights.

—Christine Keiner, author of The Oyster Question: Scientists, Watermen, and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay since 1880 

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