Art and Science to Support the Chesapeake Bay: The New Bay License Plate Design

News Release, Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Marylanders and visitors to our state have many ways to support the natural resources they enjoy. One of the most well-known recently went through a change—the Chesapeake Bay license plate.

Fourteen years had passed since the last Chesapeake Bay plate redesign, and advances in both printing technology and the ability to collect input from Marylanders on what they wanted on their license plates allowed the Motor Vehicle Administration; Maryland Correctional Enterprises, which makes the plates; and the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which manages funds from the plates, to optimize the design.

Nineteen design firms bid on the project to redesign the plate, and thousands of Marylanders played a key role in choosing among different styles and designs. Ultimately, TM Design, a tiny firm based in Frederick County, was chosen as the winning designer.

Advances in printing technology now allow the use of unlimited color, enabling the incredibly realistic new design. The new plate is a true work of art. Check out the detail in the crab’s claws and waves of the water.

The ability to connect with Marylanders online allowed designers to get critical feedback on different design elements. Input also involved several law enforcement agencies and camera technologies to make sure the plate was readable.

No matter what icons were tried on the plate, Marylanders kept coming back to the blue crab. But a man-made icon also continued to top the list — the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, connoting beaches, marshes, family trips, vacations, relaxation and connection to nature. These two icons, the crab and the bridge, speak most strongly to how Marylanders feel they interact with the bay.

The thousands of Marylanders who helped design the new plate gave the final design rave reviews. Now, all Maryland drivers can preview how the plate would look on their car by visiting

Prisoners really do make license plates
Many people are surprised to find that each plate is made carefully by hand by individuals in a program called Maryland Correctional Enterprises. Prison inmates can qualify to join the plate-making work program in Jessup to get job training through this program.

Making the plates is a multi-step process: adhesives with the image are pressed on each metal plate, allowed to cure for 24 hours, then are hand-stamped. Workers use individual large, heavy letter and number stamps in a big press, and then the raised characters are dipped in black ink to mark them. Plates are then packaged and shipped to the Motor Vehicle Administration. 

Photo of man and boy planting ferns
Planting at the Oriole Garden; by Chesapeake Bay Trust

Funds go to everyone’s backyard 
After the plates are distributed to dealerships, tag and title agencies and MVA branches, customers can purchase the plates for $20. Those funds are then managed by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Trust.

The Trust supports projects like outdoor school field trips for kids, wetland restoration, pollinator garden and tree planting projects and stormwater management improvements. All types of organizations receive the grants, such as schools, homeowners associations, civic associations, nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations and local governments.

The funds support work in every county in Maryland, from the Coastal Bays in the east to the Youghiogheny watershed in the west. Because Marylanders across the state buy bay plates, grants are made to benefit everyone. All Marylanders live within a few miles of a stream that leads to the Chesapeake Bay, the Coastal Bays or the Youghiogheny River.

The Trust makes about 400 grants per year totalling between 10 million and 14 mil-lion. Annually, about 80,000 students are able to go on field trips because of the Chesapeake Bay plate, and tens of thousands of trees are planted. One $20 license plate is the cost of giving one student a life-changing outdoor field experience or planting a tree that will create habitat and filter stormwater for decades. So one Bay plate really does make a difference.

Grantees are diverse geographically and represent a tremendous diversity of natural resources solutions. One example is a grant to St. Mary’s College of Maryland in which students designed a project to use grazing goats to control invasive species. Goats will gobble up almost any plant and will work for a free lunch! This approach of using goats to remove invasive species and ready an area for planting natives is growing in popularity, in part through the demonstration of their use by Trust grantees like St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Another highly visible project can be found right outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore City, where visitors are greeted by a bird and pollinator habitat garden. This project, led by the National Aquarium in Baltimore, provides a lovely place where baseball fans can not only stop to take a break but also learn about native plants. The garden is designed with native plants in mind to not just provide habitat but also trap potentially toxic rainwater from running into the harbor.

Plate Perks program
Individuals who purchase license plates not only get a nice look for their car— “accessoriding,” as the Trust calls it—and the satisfaction of having provided funds for a student’s field trip or a newly planted tree, but they also get discounts from local businesses that allow them to make their $20 back quickly. Bay plate owners have the option to join the “Plate Perks” program, a partnership with local businesses that offers discounts, preferred parking and other perks. A full list of participating businesses can be found at

About the Chesapeake Bay Trust
The Chesapeake Bay Trust is a nonprofit grant making organization dedicated to improving the natural resources of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay region through environmental education, community engagement and local watershed restoration. The Trust is supported by the sale of the Treasure the Chesapeake license plate, donations to the Chesapeake Bay and Endangered Species Fund on the state income tax form, contributions to the new Maryland Outdoor Recreation and Clean Water Fund through the Department of Natural Resources’ online fishing, hunting and boating registration, donations from individuals and corporations and partnerships with private foundations and federal, state and local agencies. The Trust has received the highest rating from Charity Navigator for 15 years: 92 per-cent of the Trust’s expenditures are directed to its restoration and education programs.

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