By Mike Dickison

ONE way for us to preserve the natural heritage of our country is to put our money where our mouth is and buy it.

This is done all the time privately by landowners setting aside parts of their own property as a QEII covenant, protected against future development.

The public version of this was the Givealittle campaign to purchase Awaroa Beach for over $2 million and add it to Abel Tasman National Park. Overseas, rainforests in developing countries have been saved by paying locals to not cut it down, or buying them and turning them into reserves. Perhaps, rather than use legislation or treaties to preserve nature, we could harness the free market.

Currently there is a thriving trade in moa bones in New Zealand; because of a legal loophole, remains of extinct species collected on private land aren't protected by the Wildlife Act. One response would be to shame Trade Me into no longer listing moa remains. Another would be to lobby to change the legislation. But a third option, if we truly care about fossil bones, is to buy them ourselves.

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The worst offenders are looters who pull moa skeletons out of caves and sell them piecemeal. Economist Eric Crampton suggested we set up a PledgeMe account for buying "intact, at-site, and undisturbed" moa remains on private land. This would encourage people to locate the bones and landowners to preserve them undisturbed. The skeleton would become the property of whichever museum the PledgeMe campaign nominated, and could be put on display or stay safe in a cave. It's a fascinating idea, and one applicable to other valuable goods on private land that the public have an interest in preserving.

The Government is currently setting the fishing quota for the threatened longfin eel, whose numbers have steadily dropped over the last few decades. Environmentalists are aghast that this threatened species is still being exported and ending up in pet food. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has recommended a moratorium on longfins. Could we solve this with crowdfunding? Would an economist suggest that we all chip in, buy the longfin quota, and not use it?

That seems like it wouldn't work. The eel quota is a meaningless number: currently the commercial eel fishery is not even meeting its quota, rather than being restrained by it. What incentive would there be for MPI to lower the quota if the public were happy to buy it all up? Haven't we, as taxpaying voters, already shelled for the fishery to be managed the way we want? Why should we have to pay for it a second time out of our pockets?

But there's another counter-argument. The longfin eel fishery is public property, but it's exploited for private profit: a few dozen eel fishers making a trivial $500,000 a year. Rather than crowdfund to buy back something we already own, we could simply tell the eel fishers to go catch something else.

Despite the potential of crowdfunding as a conservation tool it's perfectly okay for democracy to overrule the free market. Just as it's no longer acceptable to hunt whales and seals, future generations will be aghast that we exported longfin eels.

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.