In a recent decision, Almond Alliance of California v. Fish and Game Commission, a California court was asked to determine whether bumble bees fall within the definition of a “fish” in the California endangered species act. The issue arose when California attempted to classify four types of bumble bees as endangered species. Under California law, “fish” can be classified in this manner, so if the bees qualified as “fish” then they could be protected. Seems like an easy question to answer, right? But remember, this is California.
The court held that a bee is a “terrestrial invertebrate” and all invertebrates – not just ones that spend at least some of their time in the water – are included under the definition of “fish” in California’s endangered species act. Good news for bees; bad news for the English language.
In Almond Alliance, the court acknowledged that “[a] fish, as the term is commonly understood in everyday parlance, of course, lives in aquatic environments.” But the California legislature defined “fish,” for purposes of its endangered species act, as a “wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, [or] amphibian.” According to the legislative history, this expanded definition would “permit closer control and monitoring of the harvest of species such as starfish, sea urchins, sponges, and worms,” and would allow the state to protect “amphibians (frogs) and invertebrates, such as starfish, sea urchins, anemones, jellyfish and sponges.” No mention of bees or insects anywhere in the definition or legislative history, but the court nonetheless held that a bee is “terrestrial invertebrate” and the definition of fish includes “invertebrate,” so a bee is a fish.
Of course, the court did not hold that a bee is a fish for all purposes. It just held that a bee satisfies the definition of “fish” in the California endangered species statute, so it can be protected. But still, it seems odd to acknowledge that a fish is, “of course,” “commonly understood” to mean an aquatic creature, then review legislative history that references full-time aquatic creatures like mollusks (snails, clams, squids) and crustaceans (crabs lobsters, shrimp) and part-time aquatic creatures (amphibians), only to then conclude that an insect that, as far as I know, avoids the water entirely, is a fish. I am all for reading the terms of a statute literally, but this seems a bit much for me.