A sea lion at Taronga Zoo helps shoppers consider sustainability as well as taste when buying fish, writes Tim Barlass.
A three-year-old Australian sea lion at Taronga Zoo will soon influence the way consumers buy fish at supermarkets.
Nala is the face of a campaign called Fish for Life initiated by keepers to help shoppers think about sustainability when buying fish.
They first included the conservation message in the address during the seal show and then started giving out wallet-size information sheets on sustainable fish.
Soon after that Taronga teamed up with Woolworths to trial the program in four Sydney supermarkets: two in Neutral Bay near the zoo, Eastgardens and Bondi.
The scheme shows the consumer whether the fish they are about to buy was a positive choice (3 points), a good alternative (2 points) or needs improvement (1 point).
Points are awarded based on fishing methods - whether line or trawl caught - as well as damage to the ocean, sustainability of jobs and stocks of the species of fish.
Now the supermarket plans to roll out the system nationwide after customers gave it the 'seal' of approval.
Jason McQuaid, a seafood buyer for Woolworths, says: "What we have learnt with the trial is that shoppers are happy to get the information and want to know more about the programme. They are not too crash hot about being made to feel guilty.
"There will be some changes and some fine tuning but our intention is for all stores that have a seafood counter in them to adopt the system hopefully within a year."
Using a traffic light system was rejected by consumers who felt it inferred that a product was unhealthy and high in fats or sugar - certainly not the case with seafood.
There are fewer than 14,000 Australian sea lions in the wild, with small isolated populations along the south coast from Victoria to Perth at risk of extinction.
Kira Husher, who leads the community conservation project at Taronga, says: "Humans are taking more fish from the oceans than can naturally be replaced and Taronga's Fish for Life campaign is asking people to remember when they buy fish that they are not the only ones relying on those fish to eat. There is plenty of other marine life, like Australian sea lions, relying on it too."
Dr Husher said buying locally caught fish was a better choice and also meant produce travelled fewer air miles. "A lot of developing countries have still to implement sustainable fishing practices. When in doubt it is certainly, with fish, safer to buy Australian products," she said. "We are supporting the Marine Stewardship Council's eco label [a blue tick] but if you can't find that your next best bet is Australian caught because 70 per cent of seafood products are imported."
Husher says: "The public wants to engage with wildlife and understand conservation issues. The Fish for Life campaign has been all about looking at sustainable seafood and how animals like sea lions that are really emotive allow people to connect with the issue.
"We want to compel people to act but we want to give them actions they can take in a really positive way - it's not too late.
"Simple repeatable behaviours can make a huge difference - if it's just a matter of picking not necessarily the fish that you ate every week as a kid but the one sitting alongside it."
Meanwhile, Nala has a mate at Taronga and may soon do her bit to help conserve numbers.
However, it is unlikely any zoo-bred sea lion will be introduced to the wild - they are very territorial so newcomers may not be welcome.
"We are far better off just protecting the habitat and food sources of the ones left in the wild," Husher says.