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The decision, announced on Tuesday, came after state wildlife officials were sued by agricultural groups for attempting to list four bumble bee species under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).
The justices reversed a lower court decision and decided that threatened or endangered bees could be listed under the CESA category of fish - since “fish” is defined as including invertebrates.
“Today’s decision confirms that California Endangered Species Act protections apply to all of our state’s imperiled native species and is critical to protecting our state’s renown biodiversity.”
On the other hand, California’s Fish and Game Code defines “fish” as including wild fish, mollusks, crustaceans, invertebrates and amphibians. This seems to stretch the colloquial boundary of “fish” – few people would describe a crab as a fish, for example.
But the expanded definition allows the state to protect, for example, the California freshwater shrimp, a species which lives only in California and is threatened by development.
In this recent case, the state court had to decide whether bees counted as “invertebrates” under the state definition of “fish”.
“A fish, as the term is commonly understood in everyday parlance, of course, lives in aquatic environments,” the justices mused in the ruling.
However, California’s definition of “fish” includes at least one land-based invertebrate – the Trinity bristle snail.
The justices concluded that the definition of “fish” here should not be limited to aquatic wildlife, and that land-based invertebrates like bees can be listed under the law.
Insects like bees face a variety of threats, from pesticides to the climate crisis. According to the non-profit Xerces Society, an insect protection group and another intervenor defendant on the case, 28 per cent of North American bumble bees are facing extinction.
Around the world warming and habitat loss is decimating insect populations – which could have serious ecological consequences for things like pollination and food sources for other wildlife.
“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,” Sarina Jepsen from the Xerces Society said via their press release.