California Ruling That Bees Are Fish Is Sea Change for Environmental Law

California Ruling That Bees Are Fish Is Sea Change for Environmental Law
Native California Bumblebee. Photo courtesy Sam Joyce

Sometimes, in the eyes of the law, words take on meanings different from their colloquial use. “Solid waste,” under the federal statute governing waste disposal, can include liquids and contained gases; “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act can include, for now, arroyos, mudflats, and marshes. In Nix v. Hedden, the U.S. Supreme Court determined a tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit, sparking an ongoing taxonomic debate. And, as part of Stanford’s Environmental Law Clinic, I argued before California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal that state law defined “fish” broadly enough to include bees.

In June of this year, the court agreed, and social media exploded. Friends from college and high school sent me screenshots of the court’s opinion, sometimes paired with a picture of a can of Bumble Bee tuna. Donald Trump Jr. got a few thousand Twitter likes out of it, and Elon Musk cited the opinion as an example of California’s “crazy rules.”

On its face, the outcome seems odd: How can a bee be a fish? But the court’s opinion (Almond Alliance v. Fish and Game Commission, 299 Cal. Rptr. 3d 9 [Ct. App. 2022]) was grounded in the text of the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), which protects “native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant.” None of those categories might seem like an obvious place for bees, butterflies, or other insects.

But the California Fish and Game Code includes an expansive definition of fish: “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, [or] amphibian.” Because bumblebees, like all insects, are invertebrates, the court concluded that they could be protected under CESA. Whatever our colloquial understandings of the term, the legislature wrote the law to encompass a much broader category, and long-settled principles of statutory interpretation require the court to use the definitions crafted by the legislature.

In the Environmental Law Clinic, I had the opportunity to help draft our reply brief and argue the case in the appeals court; previous generations of clinical students had handled the trial court litigation and our opening brief. In the litigation, we represented a trio of environmental organizations—the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the Center for Food Safety, and Defenders of Wildlife—that had petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to protect four species of bumblebees. The commission initially agreed, but agricultural groups filed suit to challenge its authority to list insects, kicking off several years of litigation.

In September, the California Supreme Court declined review, allowing the appeals court’s decision—that the commission has the authority to list insects—to stand. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye issued a separate statement, noting that “[c]areful analysis of a statute to divine legislative intent can sometimes yield results that might be surprising at first blush.” 

“These kinds of seemingly illogical outcomes,” she explained, may sometimes “best capture the enacting legislature’s intent.

Our brief in the appeals court highlighted the real stakes of this case: Without CESA’s protections, “these species are likely to go extinct in California.” The four species of bumblebee—the western, Franklin’s, Crotch’s, and Suckley’s cuckoo bumble bee—have all seen rapid population decline over the last few decades. Moreover, a ruling that CESA could not protect insects would set a dire precedent for other insects facing extinction, such as the monarch butterfly.

Although I didn’t expect this case to generate quite the level of reaction it did, it was incredibly rewarding to work on a lawsuit that could make a real difference for countless endangered species—it’s definitely been the most valuable part of my time here at Stanford. One of the four species of bumblebee at the heart of this lawsuit is already listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature designates three of the four as endangered. As Elizabeth Kolbert chronicled in her book The Sixth Extinction, the rate at which species are going extinct is rapidly accelerating, driven by habitat destruction, deforestation, and pollution. If CESA’s protections can do something to slow or reverse that trend in California, this lawsuit will have made a world of difference.  SL

Sam Joyce is a 3L at Stanford Law School, where he is the managing editor of the Stanford Law Review. After graduation, he will clerk for the Alaska Supreme Court.