East Hawaii News

UH-Hilo Alumna Recipient of Pew Marine Research Grant

April 9, 2014, 1:18 PM HST
* Updated April 9, 1:24 PM
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A University of Hawaii at Hilo graduate who went on to become a research fellow at a university in Malaysia is one of five new recipients of research grants from the Pew Charitable Trust.

Louisa Shobhini Ponnampalam, a 2003 graduate of the UH-Hilo marine science program, is one of five 2014 entrants in the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation.

Ponnampalam has been awarded $150,000 for a three-year study on dugongs, a large coastal marine mammal that resembles a manatee.

Dugong habitat is under stress from rapid, large-scale development that sometimes puts pressure on Malaysia’s marine environment.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the dugong as “vulnerable to extinction,” a threatened status considered one step below endangered.

A dugong feeding on seagrass. Photo by Julien Willem/Wikimedia.

A dugong feeding on seagrass. Photo by Julien Willem/Wikimedia.

Focusing on the islands located off the east coast of Johor in Peninsular Malaysia, Ponnampalam’s research will identify areas that are critical for one of the country’s last remaining population of dugongs in order to make recommendations for their habitat protection, the trust said.

“Seagrass beds in Malaysia, which are a crucial part of the dugong’s habitat and diet, and support a diversity of marine life including our seafood resources, are currently not afforded any legal provisions,” Ponnampalam said on the trust’s website.

“This project would allow us to further understand dugong distribution and behavior and their reliance on this particular area, so that government authorities can soon make informed decisions about enabling the protection of important habitat areas.”

Ponnampalam is a research fellow at the Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences of the University of Malaya in Malaysia. After earning her bachelor’s degree at UH-Hilo, she was awarded a Ph.D. in marine biology at the University Marine Biological Station Millport, a program of the University of London.

Louisa Shobhini Ponnampalam. Pew Charitable Trust photo.

Louisa Shobhini Ponnampalam. Pew Charitable Trust photo.

She is a co-founder of the MareCet Research Organization, Malaysia’s first non-profit organization dedicated to research, conservation, and increasing public awareness of marine animals. She is also vice-chair of the International Consortium for Marine Conservation and serves as a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission’s Cetacean and Sirenian Specialist Groups.

Each year, the Pew Charitable Trust selects five marine fellows based on the strengths of their proposed projects, including the benefit their research will provide in protecting ocean environments.

The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation has awarded 135 fellowships to individuals from 31 countries. The fellowships fund projects that address critical challenges in ocean conservation.

Other recipients this year include a scientist studying impacts of regulations on the shark-fin trade, another examining sustainable fishing practices along the coast of Mexico, and a journalist and author focusing on the human demand for omega 3 fatty acids and its impact on sustainability of the world’s oceans.

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