A bumblebee pollinates a California Poppy, San Jose, California.
CNN  — 

A fishy ruling from California: A California court has ruled bees can legally be considered fish under specific circumstances.

The ruling, released May 31, reversed an earlier judgment which found bumblebees could not be considered “fish” under the California Endangered Species Act.

“The issue presented here is whether the bumblebee, a terrestrial invertebrate, falls within the definition of fish, as that term is used in the definitions of endangered species in section 2062, threatened species in section 2067, and candidate species (i.e., species being considered for listing as endangered or threatened species) in section 2068 of the Act,” wrote California’s Third District Court of Appeal in its ruling.

The California Endangered Species Act was designed to protect “native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant.”

Notably, invertebrates are absent from the list of protected species.

But in a lucky loophole for insects, mollusks, and other spineless creatures falling under the umbrella term “invertebrate,” the act itself defines a “fish” as “a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.”

Expanding the definition of fish to include invertebrates makes them eligible for greater protection from the Fish and Game Commission, wrote the court.

In 2018, several public interest groups petitioned to list four species of bumblebee as endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act: the Crotch bumblebee, the Franklin bumblebee, the Suckley cuckoo bumblebee, and the Western bumblebee.

In 2020, the Sacramento County Superior Court found the “invertebrates” listed in the definition of fish referred only to marine invertebrates – not insects like bumblebees – and the California Fish and Game Commission lacked authority to list invertebrates under the act.

Tuesday’s ruling overruled the decision, finding “fish” can indeed include bumblebees, at least for the sake of the California Endangered Species Act.

“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,” said the court in its ruling.

The reversal means bumblebees can now be eligible for listing under the California Endangered Species Act. The conservation win comes as bumblebees have faced serious decline throughout the United States due to climate change.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, one of several nonprofits petitioning California to protect the bees, celebrated the legal victory in a news release.

“We are celebrating today’s decision that insects and other invertebrates are eligible for protection under CESA,” said Sarina Jepsen, the Xerces Society’s director of endangered species, in the 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.”