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Bumblebees are fish, California court rules

Bee on a flower (Photo courtesy of Liz George)
June 06, 2022

A California court ruled last week that a bumblebee is legally a fish, allowing it to be protected under the state’s endangered species laws.

Court documents from Almond Alliance of California v. Fish and Game Commission showed that the California State Appellate Court of the Third District determined that the word “fish … is not limited solely to aquatic species” and applies to a “terrestrial invertebrate” like the bumblebee.

According to the judges, the term “fish” may “colloquially and commonly understood to refer to aquatic species,” but the legal “definition of fish … is not so limited.”

“The California Endangered Species Act … directs the Fish and Game Commission to ‘establish a list of endangered species and a list of threatened species.’ The issue presented here is whether the bumble bee, a terrestrial invertebrate, falls within the definition of fish,” the documents stated.

The court noted that prior to 1969, the law defined “fish” as “wild fish, mollusks, or crustaceans, including any part, spawn or ova thereof.” The legislature later amended that definition to include “invertebrates and amphibia.”

Then, in 2015, the definition was changed once again to read “‘[f]ish’ means a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.”

“We acknowledge the scope of the definition is ambiguous but also recognize we are not interpreting the definition on a blank slate,” the court stated. “The legislative history supports the liberal interpretation of the Act (the lens through which we are required to construe the Act) that the Commission may list any invertebrate as an endangered or threatened species.”

The American bumblebee population has been dwindling in the United States, according to USA Today. Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Oregon each have either zero or nearly zero American bumblebees left.

“The American bumble bee was once the most common bumble bee species in North America, but without immediate action to protect it under the ESA, it will continue its alarming decline towards extinction,” the petition authors wrote.

The bee’s population has decreased by 89 percent over the last 20 years, prompting calls for the species to be recognized under the Endangered Species Act.

“To survive unchecked threats of disease, habitat loss and pesticide poisoning, American bumblebees need the full protection of the Endangered Species Act right now,” Center for Biological Diversity scientist Jess Tyler said in a statement last year.

The Center asserted that the bee’s decline “could have serious consequences for ecosystems: their varied diet makes them a highly important pollinator, essential for wild plant life as well as for the production of cultivated crops.”