How do you make a big impact with only small grants? That’s the specialty of the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) Program.

With just over $1 million, MCAF has supported more than 150 ocean conservation projects in 50-plus countries across six of the Earth’s seven continents.

“We are joining hands with people all over the world to take on the problems facing the ocean,” said Elizabeth Stephenson, Program Officer and Chair of MCAF.

MCAF addresses critical needs in the marine conservation field by awarding microgrants of up to $10,000. Since it launched in 1999, MCAF has supported a wide range of projects, from combating sea turtle poaching in Costa Rica to marine animal issues in Iran.

These grantees are on the front lines, often in locations where there is minimal support in place for conservation of any kind.

“It’s so important to see conservation efforts happen in the developing world,” said Elizabeth, adding that every grantee is an inspiration.

In this day and age, when there’s so much despair in conservation in the world, to be connected to a network of people who are making change happen on the ground and persisting is just so inspiring.”
- Elizabeth Stephenson

Building those connections has been Elizabeth’s focus since taking over the MCAF program in 2008. In 2015, she spearheaded the launch of the Fellows program, through which MCAF brings select grantees to Boston to strengthen their connections with the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center researchers, raise awareness and learn how to effectively communicate about their work, and, of course, share their stories with some of the Aquarium’s more than 1 million annual visitors.

“MCAF was designed as a funding ambulance for the ocean,” said Elizabeth. “But it has really grown to be about investing in conservation leaders.” That’s what MCAF is all about—not just investing in projects, but investing in people.

Elizabeth calls the MCAF grantees “renaissance people” because they speak all the languages needed for successful conservation. Outreach. Science. Diplomacy. Education. They’re fluent in all of them.

“They’re able to do all these and do them well,” she said.

“It’s a real two-way learning process,” said Elizabeth. “We’re investing in leaders and projects, but we’re getting so much back. We’re learning so much about the science they’re doing, how they’re working with local stakeholders and communities, and involving youth in their programs.”

Elizabeth Stephenson and MCAF Fellow Anna Oposa chat with Aquarium President and CEO Vikki Spruill.

From the Aquarium’s perspective, that’s one of MCAF’s greatest strengths—being able to incorporate that on-the-ground knowledge into how we operate every day. It’s a truly multi-disciplinary, inclusive approach to conservation.

“They’re doing science, involving fishermen, schools, politicians,” said Elizabeth. “It’s a very holistic approach that I think you need to have long-lasting success in conservation.”

For Elizabeth, that’s one of the highlights of her job. With such varying projects and personalities, every day is different. Our Fellows have a variety of backgrounds, with experience in research, marketing, rocket science, and even musical theater.

“Every new project and new person introduces a whole different world and is an education in and of itself,” she said. “It’s exciting all the time because there’s always something new to learn.”

So what’s next for MCAF? Elizabeth wants to deepen the support system for the MCAF Fellows and grantees, both financially and through the support of the ever-growing MCAF network. And
since diversity is a huge priority for the program, she’s aiming to broaden the network of conservation leaders to support more emerging leaders who are working in their native developing countries.

As MCAF Fellow Asha de Vos, Ph.D., said, “There needs to be a local hero on every coastline.”

At the New England Aquarium, we are proud to be able to support these heroes.

Keep an Eye Out! 

Later this month, the Aquarium will welcome our Fellows to Boston for the first-ever MCAF Fellows Summit. Follow along on our social media channels for sneak peeks into what it takes to be an ocean conservation inspiration! Or tweet along with #WeAreMCAF