Bees are fish, US court declares — Analysis

Insects don’t qualify for California Endangered Species Act protection, so bumblebees are being reclassed

Four species of bumblebees have been reclassified as ‘fish’ in the state of California so that they can be protected under its Endangered Species Act, a court ruled on Tuesday, reversing a 2020 ruling and affirming that the term ‘fish’ shouldn’t be confined to merely ‘aquatic’ invertebrates under the law.

Recognizing the ambiguity of the definition, but not without acknowledging that we cannot interpret it on our own.,” the California Court of Appeal for the Third District declared in its ruling.

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California Fish and Game Commission now considers the four species of bumblebees at-risk animals and plants. They shelter the insects from sale, import, and export. This is an insult to agriculture groups like the Almond Alliance of California. They have reacted against it, saying that the decision would increase financial burdens for growers of bee-friendly crops.

Since insects do not fall under the protection of the California Endangered Species Act, (CESA), agency had to think outside the box. Candidates for CESA protection are limited to “A native species, subspecies, or combination of birds, mammals, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, or plants.” under California’s fish and game laws. Some species of insects are not protected by the state but fall under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The agency opted to split biological hairs in order to save the bees, noting the legal definition of fish – “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals” – includes invertebrates, which includes bumblebees.

While the trial court dismissed their claim, the appellate court countered that bees could in fact qualify as fish, because “although the term fish is colloquially and commonly understood to refer to aquatic species, the term of art employed by the Legislature in the definition of fish… is not so limited.

The decision pointed out that a snail had previously been listed under CESA, noting that because such a terrestrial invertebrate “could not have qualified for such status within the definition fish,” the Commission’s authority was not limited to listing only aquatic invertebrates.

A terrestrial invertebrate may, as with each one of the four species of bumblebees, be designated endangered or threatened under the Act,” the ruling stated. “Legislative history supports the Act’s liberal interpretation (the lens we must use to interpret it) and that any invertebrate may be listed as endangered or threatened by the Commission..”

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Crotch and Franklin bees, Suckley and Western bumblebees are the newly protected species. They are “highly endangered,” according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, whose spokeswoman, Sarina Jepsen, argued that classifying the critical pollinators as endangered is essential to their survival. 

California Endangered Species Act (CESA) protects approximately 250 species. However, it doesn’t cover insects, theoretically leaving bumblebees in a legal no man’s land. Slowly, fish have been extended to include amphibians as well as invertebrates over time, opening up the possibility of including bees. 

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