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More Than A Pretty Picture: How Four Florida Specialty License Plates Impact Our Local Ecosystem


You might even have one yourself – but chances are you have at least seen those special Florida license plates depicting sea life. There are dolphins, a shark, a big whale tail.. and one that looks like a famous cartoon fish. 

KK: “It looks like the Finding Nemo – it has the clown fish.”

That’s Katha Kissman.

KK: “I am the president and CEO of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation.”

We are sitting in her office. We want to know what happens after Floridians purchase one of these four specialty plates designed by famous marine artists.

KK: “The Florida Specialty License Plate program has been around for quite some time. And we were one of the very first license plates to be granted through the program.”

It all started with the Florida state legislature creating the Challenger specialty license plate in January 1987. Since then, Florida's specialty license plate program has raised over $675 million for various causes. On average over 1.4 million Floridians annually participate in the program. 

KK: “Our very first plate was enacted in 1998 and it was the Protect Wild Dolphins plate.”

It was designed by area artist Steve Diossy. Next came Protect Florida Whales, designed by Wyland; then Aquaculture – that’s the one with the cute orange clown fish designed by Guy Harvey; and Save Our Seas – that’s the shark – also by Harvey.

Costs for the plates range from $25 to $35.

KK: Protect Wild Dolphins - we use those funds to be able to support strandings of marine mammals.

Proceeds also support a photo identification program for dolphins.

Protect Our Whales also goes to support stranding responses.

KK: There is a master agreement that rules how these stranded animals are dealt with. If they cannot be released for example – many of the mammals are entangled…

… in plastic, fishing lines or nets.

KK: Sometimes our stranding response is simply to get them untangled and check them out and make sure they are ok and then they are released back into the water. Other times they need to be euthanized and there is a legal protocol that has to be followed. If they are euthanized, we do have a necropsy lab here that can actually test them and find out lots of different things about the animal.

Protect Our Whales also generates funds for Harbor Branch to sponsor the Right Whale Festival, and the Indian River Lagoon Science Festival that is held each year in Fort Pierce.

And – Aquaculture – the cute clown fish?

KK: Aquaculture which is the farming of fish - that’s all to do research in how to do the best sustainable aquaculture possible because right now about 50% of the food that we eat in the United states is farmed and the vast majority of that comes from overseas. We want to make sure that the farmed fish is going to be good.

Finally, there is the shark – Save Our Seas. Funds support the Indian River Lagoon Observatory which is a water quality sensing network…

KK: What they call the Lobos Network… We now can monitor the conditions of the water quality of the Lagoon on a real time basis.

Anyone can go to the website 24 hours a day and see exactly what the conditions are.

Through Save Our Seas, they have a partnership with Sea Food Watch and the Monterey Bay Aquarium where they distribute wallet size informational cards so people can make informed choices when purchasing seafood.   

KK: Sometimes we want to make a better choice because fish is being commercially depleted. Other times we know that there might be high levels of for example mercury.

Save Our Seas also helps fund research for the harmful algae blooms we experience.

KK: We do know that along the Treasure coast there is a high rate of nonalcoholic liver disease which many people feel that the research is pointing to the fact that we have had the harmful algae blooms and it is a certain kind of a toxin that is released by these harmful algae blooms.

Learn more by clicking here: https://www.fau.edu/hboi/license-plates/