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Trying to save the oceans, one small grant at a time

In the vast areas of the planet covered by water, human activity threatens the survival of countless species.

There was a time, for example, when manta rays were tossed back, dead or alive, when they were accidentally trapped in fishermen’s nets in places like Sri Lanka. Now their dried gills are prized in China for treating everything from cancer to measles – without any proof they are effective – and one of the sea’s most majestic creatures is being fished nearly out of existence.

In Pakistan and India, the blind Indus River dolphin, one of the most endangered species, swims a shrinking stretch of water, trapped by development and dams.

And in Chile, fishermen who cannot afford to properly dispose of torn nets simply tip them into the sea, adding to the offshore trash that chokes seabirds and fish.

Overfishing, habitat loss and pollution threaten species in so many places that research and conservation organizations cannot do all that is needed. So, with the aim of making a dent through small, targeted efforts, the New England Aquarium in Boston has for 15 years awarded microgrants to projects across the globe.

The aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund has paid out $700,000 since 1999, supporting 122 projects in 40 countries on six continents. Elizabeth Stephenson, the fund’s manager, calls these projects “stories of hope for the ocean.”

The grants are modest. One researcher, Rohan Arthur, used his $6,700 payout from the fund to buy a “secondhand, beat-up compressor” to fill his scuba tanks. But the support allowed him to maintain his critical assessment of coral reefs in the Arabian Sea off the west coast of India.

Arthur, a senior scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Karnataka, India, said that in some ways, he preferred the scale of the New England Aquarium gifts. Small grants, he said, offer more freedom, but can still be transformative. “They’ve been change points in the amount we’ve been able to engage in the ecology of these reefs.”

Stephenson says her small grants nourish a huge amount of work from researchers committed to protecting the oceans. Some of the grantees have stared down bandits. They’ve been attacked by biting sand flies. They’ve spent days seeking out old fishermen who hold the only memories of certain species and what precipitated their decline.

Gill Braulik, a dolphin expert based in Tanzania, used a $5,000 grant from the aquarium in 2005 to conduct the first assessment of cetaceans in Iran. She used a second grant in 2011 to teach Pakistani scientists to take over her research on a blind dolphin species that lives only in the Indus River. Scientists knew that the dolphins’ numbers had declined since the 1870s, when their range stretched from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, 2,000 miles downstream. Now they are split into six populations by dams and limited to 20 percent of their former habitat.

These animals, which can see only light and dark, went blind over the generations because vision was not needed in the river’s muddy depths. They have long snouts, pinhole eyes and thin, spiky teeth.

Braulik had twice led expeditions for Pakistani researchers down the Indus in wooden rowboats to count the dolphins. For a third trip, in 2011, a $6,000 aquarium grant allowed her to train the local researchers in complex survey methods and analysis. Now, two groups of local scientists have led the work. “They really don’t need me anymore,” she said.

Arthur said he turned to the Marine Conservation Action Fund to fill “funding-shaped holes” in his data. He had had a grant to track coral reefs off the west coast of India beginning in 1998, but he missed four years when he could not afford to dive.

Collecting more complete data sets may have helped Arthur win funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts. He is documenting the knowledge local fishing communities have about the reefs.

Daniel Fernando, a marine biologist and associate director of the Manta Trust, received an $8,000 grant. He is working to change fisheries management policies in Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines and Malaysia to protect manta rays and their smaller cousins, the mobula.