Ask Elizabeth Stephenson how she describes the Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) and you gain an appreciation for the challenges—and accomplishments—of this global conservation program.

“I describe MCAF as basecamp and the program fellows as the climbers hiking Mount Everest,” said Elizabeth, the program officer and chair of MCAF at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.

In its 20 years, MCAF has provided microgrants and professional support to emerging conservation leaders in developing countries around the globe. In total, it has funded 156 projects in 53 countries since 1999. Each fellow receives enduring peer support from Aquarium staff, promotion of their projects through outreach to regional, national, and international audiences, and exposure to like-minded peers through the Aquarium’s week-long, immersive fellowship program. At the same time, the Aquarium benefits from being able to partner with the fellows in our common conservation goals. By meeting and working alongside MCAF Fellows each year, we gain invaluable knowledge and perspectives from conservationists around the world.

The Aquarium’s stature as a global conservation organization helps propel the fellows’ work into the spotlight. This was the case with Kerstin Forsberg, founder and director of Peru’s Planeta Océano and a 2016 MCAF Fellow, who credits her Rolex Award for Enterprise in part to the exposure she received from her alliance with the New England Aquarium. Kerstin led a successful effort to legally protect manta rays from being harvested in Peru. Of the impact that the MCAF program had on her work, Kerstin said, “MCAF has a magnificent ability to support young and rising conservationists that tackle challenges in areas with otherwise very limited funding and support.”

MCAF was also influential in Costa Rica, where it had a positive impact on the country, and on the ocean as a whole.

“One of the most significant accomplishments in 2018 was MCAF Fellow Andrés Lopéz’s garnering the support from the Costa Rican government for a shark sanctuary in Golfo Dulce,” said Elizabeth. “It’s the first shark sanctuary in Costa Rica and a huge victory for Andrés, co-founder of Misión Tiburón.”

Andrés and Misión Tiburón’s work to tag endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks and gather survey data was first funded by MCAF in 2010 and again in 2012, and then Andrés was granted a fellowship in 2017. This sustained support helped the staff at the conservation organization continue their critical research. With the necessary data points in hand, Andrés and his colleagues at Misión Tiburón proved Golfo Dulce is a critical habitat for newborn and juvenile scalloped hammerheads, leading to the sanctuary designation.

More recently, 2017 MCAF fellow Tomas Diagne, founder and director of the African Chelonian Institute in Senegal, was awarded the prestigious National Geographic/Buffet Award for Leadership in Conservation. Tomas’ work involves researching and protecting the long-term survivability of sea turtles, tortoises, and terrapins across the continent. With support in part from MCAF, Tomas launched a marine animal stranding network in Senegal in partnership with another MCAF Fellow, Lucy Keith-Diagne. A major component to his program’s success is educating local populations through grassroots partnerships.

“Like so many of our fellows, Kerstin, Andrés, and Tomas have excelled at community-based, inclusive conservation, creating a sense of pride for generations to come,” said Elizabeth. “MCAF is a small-scale funder, but we have an outsized impact on the ocean, allowing our fellows to have more influence as a result—and gain the attention of other conservation funders.”

To effectively protect our ocean is a global effort. MCAF addresses the need to work with our partners around the world to seek effective conservation solutions to the challenges that the blue planet faces. The support of the New England Aquarium’s friends enables this integral program to expand its impact. As we look ahead to the coming years, the investment of our community of donors will continue to have significant implications for our ocean.

Banner Image Credit: David Garcia, Mision Tiburon