In a move that could allow a broad spectrum of insects to be classified as an endangered species, the state Supreme Court has ruled that California bumblebees can be legally protected as a fish species.
The decision, which could have profound ramifications for the state’s agricultural industry, focuses on the obscure wording and complicated legal history of the California Endangered Species Act — a precursor to federal law.
The court said late Wednesday it didn’t want to hear arguments about whether the California Fish and Wildlife Commission might consider granting protection to a number of bumblebee species whose populations have been steadily declining. For the past three years, state almond farmers, construction companies and pesticide companies have argued that bumblebees are exempt from the listing because the state’s conservation law makes no mention of insects.
However, in a letter for the court, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said that although the law does not use the word “insects,” sections of the law suggest that invertebrates can be placed in the fish category. She also suggested that lawmakers “are in a position to make any legislative changes they deem necessary or useful” to clarify such ambiguities in the Endangered Species Act.
Cantil-Sakauye also cautioned against misinterpreting the decision as “an affirmative finding by this court that bumblebees are fish under the law.”
Wednesday’s decision was quickly welcomed by conservation groups.
“We are pleased with the decision of the California Supreme Court,” said Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at the Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “Now some of California’s most endangered pollinators could be saved from extinction.”
The dispute arose after a coalition of conservation groups led by the Xerces Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Food Safety petitioned in 2018 to protect four species: the Western, Franklin’s, Suckley’s Cuckoo and Crotch’s bumblebee.
The California Fish and Game Commission voted to begin the listing process, but several agricultural and pesticide industry interests — including the Almond Alliance of California, the California Assn. of Pest Control Advisors and the California Building Industry Assn. — challenged his decision.
They feared that listing the four species would open the door to protection for each of the more than 1,000 species of native bumblebees in California, as well as countless other insects.
The controversy does not relate to scientifically bred honey bees, which California’s agricultural communities depend on to pollinate and produce a third of the state’s vegetables and most of the world’s almonds.
However, the agribusiness industry has complained that some of the native bees considered for listing by the Commission overlap with key agricultural areas where tilling, planting and harvesting activities could make farmers and their workers liable when sheltered bees are killed.
For example, the California Building Industry Assn. In court documents, the right to define terrestrial invertebrates as fish could effectively make a criminal “anyone who ever swatted a fly, ran over an ant, or ate an aphid hiding in broccoli without a ‘fishing license.’ “
In Almond Alliance vs. California Fish and Game Commission, the groups complained that the Endangered Species Act specifically allows the government to name native species of “birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles or plants” but invertebrates such as bees rule out
However, the commission argued that a separate section of the state Fish and Game Code defines fish as including “wild fish, mollusc, crustacean, invertebrate or amphibian”.
A Supreme Court case sided with the industry groups.
In 2021, the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic intervened on behalf of the petitioners who filed the appeal.
In May, the lower court’s ruling was overturned by an opinion from California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, which found that the state legislature had defined the term “fish” as “wild fish, mollusc, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or egg” defined one of these animals.”
Therefore, the definition of ‘fish’ in the Endangered Species Act is a legal artifice that transcends the commonly understood meaning of ‘fish’.
It remains to be seen whether the hard-fought nature conservation law will ever again be brought up for revision by militant actors. The California Endangered Species Act, first passed in 1970, was repealed and replaced with an updated version in 1984 and amended in 1997.
News of the court’s decision sent the world of local bee lovers into turmoil with rare, encouraging news.
It’s a world that seems inherently pastoral and tranquil, but is fraught with problems, including climate change, competition from cultivated honey bees, shrinking habitat and pesticides.
On a recent morning while awaiting the Supreme Court decision, Krystle Hickman hovered over clumps of buckwheat in the western Mojave Desert and used a camera to document native bees. The insects, some less than half a centimeter in size, drank nectar and collected loads of pollen.
“People tend to think of ecology as very big, landscape on a scale,” said the 37-year-old. “But each of these bushes exists as a kind of densely populated universe in its own right.”
The photographer and artist has spent the last few years developing identification materials and photo galleries designed to give people a glimpse of often-overlooked natural communities shared by insects, including native bees.
“The Supreme Court decision is great news for these insects,” Hickman said. “They deserve to be studied, admired and preserved.”
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-23/bumblebees-can-be-protected-as-fish-california-court-rules Bumblebees can be protected as “fish” California court rules