The issue was whether the bumble bee, a terrestrial invertebrate, falls within the definition of fish – a division in the list of endangered species and threatened species in the California Endangered Species Act.
The act identifies the protected species, in separate divisions, as “bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant.”
It all started in a 2019 lawsuit between large agricultural groups in the state — such as almond and citrus growers — and the California Fish and Game Commission.
The lawsuit specifically set out to determine whether the commission exceeded its authority when it designated four bumble bee species as endangered species – the Crotch bumble bee, the Franklin bumble bee, the Suckley cuckoo bumble bee and the Western bumble bee – calling them invertebrates, therefore falling under CESA’s definition of fish.
In years past, fish were defined as “wild fish, mollusks or crustaceans, including any part, spawn or ova thereof.” But in 2015, the legislature modified the definition to read “ ‘[f]ish’ means a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.”
In the ruling, the courts gave the commission the legal authority to list invertebrate species as endangered, even if they are not aquatic animals.
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“We next consider whether the commission’s authority is limited to listing only aquatic invertebrates,” the ruling stated. “We conclude the answer is, “no.” 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 in section 45 is not so limited.”