Shortly after the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century, the first commercial abalone fishery sprang to life along the shores of central and southern California, an industry founded and developed by pioneering Chinese immigrants. A number of archaeological survey and excavation projects along California's offshore islands and careful historical records searches have uncovered details on how Chinese immigrants managed to establish what would become a multi-million dollar commercial fishery. By shipping dried black abalone to Chinese communities in the American West, and exporting the product to a ready market in China, Chinese merchants in Santa Barbara assembled an elaborate trade network that spanned from Santa Barbara to their home villages in China. Anti-Chinese sentiments and marginalization, however, left the activities and lifeways of these fishermen and merchants largely lost in the early history of the state. Here, I offer the first synthesis of archaeological and historical data of Chinese abalone fishing across the Northern and Southern Channel Islands. My results reveal details about the business practices of Chinese fishermen, their fishing strategies and lifeways, and flexible island harvesting patterns that were adapted to meet the unique challenges of the various Channel Islands. By examining export trade networks created by Chinese merchants, I also demonstrate the viability and profitability of Chinese fishing endeavors. This study fills a critical gap for understanding the broader context of California's historical fisheries and contextualizes the state's social and climate at the dawn of the globalized, commercial fishing industry.