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Yes, a California court ruled bees are fish — but only for a specific conservation law

Since California’s endangered species law does not include “insects,” an appeals court agreed that bees could be included under the law’s definition of “fish.”

A California appeals court generated buzz with a recent ruling regarding the state’s endangered species law. According to people on social media, the court ruled that bees are fish.

That earned the ire of people who thought the court bumbled into its decision, like Donald Trump, Jr., who said that bees are fish “because words have no meaning.”

THE QUESTION

Did a California court ruling classify bees as fish?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, a California court ruling did classify bees as fish — in the context of a specific conservation law.

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WHAT WE FOUND

California’s Third District Court of Appeals ruled that bees are classified as fish under the state’s conservation law. The state had argued that because the law does not have a separate category for insects, bees fit into the legal definition of fish since they are invertebrates.

California’s courts took up the question on whether bees are fish following a decision by the California Fish and Game Commission. The commission chose to consider four species of bumble bees for protection under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

Seven California agricultural associations and one company argued the commission did not have authority to protect insects under CESA, and sued to block the decision. The agricultural associations said protecting bees under CESA would be disruptive to their industries because there would be ambiguity in whether certain farming behaviors would violate the bees’ protections.

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The Sacramento County Superior Court issued a ruling in the case, called Almond Alliance v. California Fish and Game Commission, in favor of the agricultural associations. The commission appealed, and California's Third District Court of Appeal sided with the commission, saying the bees could be protected.

When writing laws, legislators sometimes define words differently than their common, everyday usage. For example, U.S. Code defines “person” to include corporations and other companies. 

CESA defines “endangered species” to mean: “A native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant.” This same definition is used for “threatened species” and “candidate species,” the latter of which is the category the commission assigned to the bees.

The agricultural associations argued that because this definition doesn’t specifically include insects or invertebrates — invertebrates being animals without a backbone — the commission can’t list bees for protection.

But the commission argued that CESA relies on the state’s Fish and Game Code to define these groups of species. That code defines “fish” as, “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian.” Since bees are invertebrates, the commission has the authority to protect bees, it argued.

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The Court of Appeals sided with the Commission.

“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,” it said. A “term of art” is a word or phrase that has a specific defined meaning in a certain context or field different to its commonly understood meaning.

Although the first court acknowledged that the code included invertebrates in its definition for fish, it concluded that the California legislature specifically meant aquatic vertebrates. The appeals court disagreed.

When CESA was passed in 1984, the appeals court said, the California legislature included protections for animals already protected under an older conservation law. Among those animals were two crustaceans and a mollusk, animals that aren’t included in the CESA definitions unless they’re included under the broader fish definition. The protected mollusk was a land-based snail, which the appeals court said is evidence that the “fish” definition extends beyond aquatic species.

Since bees are invertebrates, that argument would mean bees are included in the state’s definition of fish used in its law to protect endangered species.

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This decision does not change the definition of fish outside of the Commission’s authority to consider endangered species for protection.

“We are celebrating today’s decision that insects and other invertebrates are eligible for protection under CESA,” Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which intervened in the case on behalf of the commission, said in a press release. “The Court’s decision allows California to protect some of its most endangered pollinators, a step which will contribute to the resilience of the state’s native ecosystems and farms.”

There is still a chance that the decision could be appealed further.

“The decision could complicate ongoing efforts to manage farmland to protect wildlife and feed the nation and the world,” said Western Growers, one of the agricultural associations who sued the Commission to argue it can’t protect bees. “Western Growers and the agricultural coalition are carefully reviewing the decision and considering our options.”

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