Under California Law, Bumblebees Are ‘fish’

The California Supreme Court ruled that bumblebees are entitled to the same legal protections as fish, opening the door for a much broader range of insects to be considered for endangered species designation.

The ruling, which may have far-reaching effects on California’s agricultural sector, centers on the obscure language and murky legal background of the California Endangered Species Act, a forerunner to the federal statute.

Under California Law, Bumblebees Are 'fish'
Under California Law, Bumblebees Are ‘fish’

As of late Wednesday, the court announced that it would not hear arguments over whether or not the California Fish and Game Commission has the authority to consider protecting certain species of bumblebee whose populations have been steadily declining. Almond farmers, home builders, and pesticide manufacturers in California have spent the last three years arguing that bumblebees are not subject to listing under state conservation legislation.

Although the statute does not explicitly mention insects, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye argued that some interpretations of the statute could be read to include invertebrates in the category of fish. In addition, she emphasized that the legislature “is in a position to make whatever statutory revisions it may deem as necessary or desirable” to remove such gray areas from the endangered species legislation.

In addition, Cantil-Sakauye cautioned that the verdict should not be seen as “an affirmative determination by this court that under the law, bumblebees are fish.”

The conservation community has been swift to applaud the decision made on Wednesday.

The Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation’s director of endangered species protection, Sarina Jepsen, expressed her organization’s joy with the ruling made by the California Supreme Court. Now, it’s possible to prevent the extinction of some of California’s rarest pollinators.

The western, Franklin’s, Suckley’s, and Crotch’s bumblebees, along with a coalition of conservation groups led by the Xerces Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Food Safety in 2018, filed a petition seeking protection for these species.

Several groups, including as the Almond Alliance of California, the California Association of Pest Control Advisors, and the California Building Industry Association, filed a challenge to the California Fish and Game Commission’s vote to initiate the listing process.

The inclusion of these four species, they feared, would pave the way to the protection of all of California’s native bumblebee species, of which there are more than 1,000, and of countless other insects.

To clarify, the technologically produced honeybees upon which California’s agricultural communities rely to pollinate the crops that provide the state with one-third of the nation’s vegetables and the vast majority of the world’s almonds are not at the center of the debate.

Some native bees under consideration for listing by the commission, however, overlap with significant agricultural areas, raising concerns that tilling, planting, and harvesting could put farmers and their employees at risk of legal action if they accidentally kill protected bees.

In court briefs, the California Building Industry Assn. said that the ability to classify land-dwelling insects as fish “essentially makes a criminal of anyone who has ever swatted a fly, run over an ant, or eaten an aphid hiding in their broccoli without a ‘fishing license.'”

As the plaintiffs in Almond Alliance v. California Fish and Game Commission pointed out, the ESA only protects “bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant” species from extinction, but not invertebrates like bees.

However, the commission stated that “wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, or amphibian” are all included in the definition of “fish” in a different portion of the state fish and game code.

The trial in Superior Court found in favor of the business coalitions.

In 2021, the petitioners appealed, and the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic stepped in to help them.

Court of Appeal for the Third District of California issued a judgment in May reversing the lower court’s decision, writing that “fish” is defined by state law to include “any wild fish, mollusc, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or portion, spawn, or ovum of any of those creatures.”

This means that “fish” in the context of the endangered species act is a legal term of art that goes beyond the everyday meaning of the word.

It’s unclear if the contentious conservation law will ever be revisited by its many critics for revision. The original California Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1970; it was repealed and replaced with a newer one in 1984, and it was further revised in 1997.

The decision sent a wave of rare, encouraging news across the community of native bee enthusiasts when word got out.

Climate change, competition from farmed honeybees, dwindling habitat, and pesticides are just some of the issues plaguing this seemingly peaceful society.

Recent mornings, while Krystle Hickman awaited the Supreme Court’s judgment, she photographed native bees buzzing around buckwheat in the western Mojave Desert. Insects as small as a quarter inch in length sipped nectar and loaded up on pollen.

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