The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering changing the status of the delta smelt from “threatened” to “endangered,” meaning that the tiny fish is close to extinction.

Al Donner, a service spokesman, said the change — if approved — would indicate that the species’ status has declined since it was first given protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.

The status of the tiny three-inch fish found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has restricted water exports from there, a major source of San Diego’s drinking water.

The listing change would not necessarily offer the fish more protection than it has today, Donner said. It would prohibit the killing of the smelt in certain circumstances — though the fish is not killed in those circumstances today.

Tina Swanson, executive director of The Bay Institute, a Bay Area environmental group that filed the petition to boost the status, said the potential change was sought to increase pressure on federal officials to protect the fish.

“A change in status would at least increase the urgency and the perception that something more needed to be done. To some extent it will do that,” Swanson said. “I hope it’s a sign that Fish and Wildlife is finally recognizing the needs of the species.”

The government is in the midst of revising its permit that allows massive water pumps on the delta to kill the smelt, a significant overhaul that was forced by a federal judge’s ruling. That ruling is what has constrained Southern California water supplies recently; the new permit is likely to formally cement such reductions.


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