California Judge Makes Unusual Ruling on Bumblebees

Invertebrate insect can be classified as a fish for endangered species protections
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 6, 2022 11:59 AM CDT
Meet California's Newest Fish: the Bumblebee
Yep, this little bugger is now a fish in California's eyes.   (Getty Images/manfredxy)

In a case that gives new meaning to "fish out of water," a California appeals court judge has ruled that the bumblebee can be classified as a fish. Justice Ronald Robie of Sacramento's 3rd District Court of Appeal made his decision Tuesday, and it was done for the sole purpose of offering the insect protection as an endangered species. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that the bumblebee is an invertebrate—meaning it doesn't have a backbone—and that the state's 1970 Endangered Species Act (CESA) included invertebrates under the "fish" category in its mention of protecting any "bird, mammal, fish, amphibia or reptile" that is under threat.

In 2019, California's Fish and Game Commission agreed to a request from environmental groups to consider classifying four bumblebees species as endangered based on that assertion, even though the part about invertebrates had been removed from the law in a 1984 update (all animals protected prior to the update were grandfathered in). This move meant that the bees couldn't be killed or their habitats destroyed. However, in late 2020, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James Arguelles reversed that ruling after pushback from agricultural groups. Arguelles insisted that protections for invertebrates only applied to those that live in a marine environment, not to insects like bees. Robie found otherwise last week.

"A terrestrial invertebrate, like each of the four [bumblebee] species, may be listed as an endangered or threatened species under the Act," Robie wrote in his ruling, per the Sacramento Bee. What also helped solidify the decision: the fact that the Trinity bristle snail, an invertebrate mollusk that lives on land, has been protected under CESA since the '80s. Slate notes this isn't the first time a seemingly odd reclassification has been made for legal or even religious reasons: For instance, in the 17th century in what's now Quebec, the Catholic Church gave dispensation for the faithful to eat beaver meat during Lent, as the rodent lives part-time in the water and therefore could be considered a fish.

At any rate, the bumblebee is now once again afforded protections as an endangered species, though the agricultural groups could still take the case to California's Supreme Court. Really want to get into the semantic weeds on this? Read more at Slate—which calls the ruling a "completely logical" one—on how "textualists" and "purposivists" could both successfully argue in favor of the bees-as-fish positioning. (Read more bumblebees stories.)

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