IT’S BEEN 20 YEARS since Sea Turtle Conservancy led the successful campaign to create a sea turtle license plate in Florida. After meeting the requirements to create a new specialty tag and crafting legislation delineating how funds would be used, STC worked with the Florida Legislature to gain near-unanimous approval for the turtle tag during the 1997 Legislative Session.
Now, two decades later, the Helping Sea Turtles Survive license plate is the second highest selling specialty plate in the state (behind just the University of Florida tag) and the top selling environmental plate. It’s almost impossible to drive on Florida’s roads without catching a glimpse of the now iconic ocean blue and sand-colored plate featuring a loggerhead hatchling crawling toward the surf. But the sea turtle tag has done more than just turn a few heads.
In the mid-90s, Florida’s fledgling Marine Turtle Protection Program was fighting for survival. The state program had no dedicated funding source and was scraping by on bare-minimum annual appropriations and small grants from another wildlife agency. As a result, sea turtle research, recovery and regulatory efforts in Florida were at risk.
When STC executive director David Godfrey first started with the organization in 1993, at that time running STC’s Florida programs, his first major initiative was to launch the campaign to establish the turtle tag.
“The first thing I did after starting with STC was to travel around Florida meeting with people involved in sea turtle protection to learn about the greatest threats facing these species in the state,” Godfrey said. “I found one of the biggest challenges at the time was a lack of reliable funding for the State’s marine turtle regulatory program. I looked around and saw how successful the manatee tag was and thought to myself there’s no reason we can’t have a sea turtle tag too.”
In 1994, STC partnered with sea turtle groups and advocates across Florida to launch a statewide campaign to create the sea turtle specialty license plate, which would establish a much-needed permanent source of funding for sea turtle regulatory programs. STC spent two years carrying out a petition drive to collect the required 10,000 signatures from Florida vehicle owners who pledged to purchase the new tag once it became available. Godfrey worked with an artist from New York, Elane Eckert, to come up with a catchy design for the tag, and STC developed a long-term marketing plan to build broad support for the tag. The final requirement for establishing a new specialty tag was a $30,000 application fee that had to be paid to the Department of Motor Vehicles to cover the initial costs of printing the tag. The full amount of the fee was loaned to STC, interest free, by an anonymous member of Florida’s volunteer sea turtle community (the loan has since been paid back in full through donations from turtle groups and volunteers all over Florida).
The Helping Sea Turtles Survive specialty license plate became official in 1997, when it was passed with overwhelming support of the Florida Legislature. The tag was approved by a 35-0 vote in the Senate and a 116-3 vote in the House of Representatives. The final bill was signed by Governor Lawton Chiles at a ceremony held next to the sea turtle tanks at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
“One of the most unique aspects of Florida’s turtle tag,” said Godfrey, “is that it was established by STC with the support of other citizen groups in order to create a permanent funding source for a government program.”
Today, revenue generated by the sea turtle tag stretches a long way. Seventy percent of the plate’s proceeds serve as the primary source of funding for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Marine Turtle Protection Program (MTPP). The remaining funds are routed through STC, which distributes funding annually through the Sea Turtle Grants Program (STGP). The program disperses about $300,000 in grants every year to coastal county governments, educational institutions and nonprofit groups through a competitive grants program. Since its establishment, the STGP has been able to award more than $4 million in grants to more than 230 sea turtle research, conservation and education projects.
Support for the turtle tag has strengthened over the years. While sales of most specialty plates decreased during the recent economic downturn, the sea turtle plate consistently remained on the list of top sellers. A small portion of revenue from the tag is used by STC to conduct marketing activities on behalf of the sea turtle plate; however, Godfrey credits the long-term success of the plate to the popularity of sea turtles and the passionate support of sea turtle organizations and volunteers around Florida. By purchasing the plate, Floridians are voluntarily funding important programs to save endangered sea turtles and their habitats.
Aside from funding the state’s regulatory program, funds awarded through the Sea Turtle Grants Program have supported important advances in sea turtle research, public education and rehabilitation of sick and injured sea turtles.
For example, The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, and other organizations working to rehabilitate sick and injured turtles have received numerous grants for equipment and supplies to help them save sea turtles.
“The Sea Turtle Grants Program has helped The Turtle Hospital to grow into a state of the art medical and educational facility,” said Bette Zirkelbach, manager of The Turtle Hospital.
Perhaps most critical was the emergency grant the hospital received in 2005 after a tidal surge from Hurricane Wilma destroyed part of the facility. “We were devastated by Hurricane Wilma,” said Zirkelbach “The emergency grant from the license plate helped us quickly repair the facility and ensure that no turtles were harmed.”
Since 2013, the Brevard Zoo has received more than $50,000 in grants from the STGP to help build, equip and maintain a fully functional sea turtle treatment and healing center. Before construction of the center, injured sea turtles in the area had to be transported several hours away for treatment to Orlando, Boca Raton or even the Florida Keys. More loggerhead and green sea turtles nest in Brevard County, where the Brevard Zoo is located, than anywhere else in the United States. A new treatment center on the East Coast of Florida can mean the difference between life and death.
Jon Brangan, deputy director of the Brevard Zoo, said that building the healing center put a shorter distance between the shoreline and a turtle rehab facility. “We can see and triage turtles in half the time that it took in the past,” he said.
Proceeds from the license plate also help institutions improve their educational exhibits. The Barrier Island Center (BIC) located in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is an education center jointly operated by STC and Brevard County. The BIC received a grant in 2014 to expand and update its facilities, making sea turtle education an interactive experience for the nearly 30,000 visitors the center receives annually.
Larry Wood, a biologist with the Zoological Society of the Palm Beaches, received several grants from the STGP to launch a unique in-water study of hawksbill turtles in Florida. Of the five species of marine turtles that visit Florida waters, hawksbills remain the most mysterious to scientists. Because they don’t utilize Florida beaches for nesting hawksbills generally have been considered rare in state waters, despite being reported often by SCUBA divers along Florida’s southeast coast.
As a highly endangered species and an important member of the coral reef community, understanding and conserving hawksbill turtles in this part of their range is important to the future of both. Dr. Wood’s work to document the population of hawksbills living off of Florida’s east coast likely would not have been possible without the support of the sea turtle license plate.
The success of the Sea Turtle License Plate shows how much can be achieved when Floridians join forces to preserve what is important. Every time someone makes the switch to the sea turtle license plate, we create a better future for Florida’s sea turtles. Together, we are helping sea turtles survive every time we drive.