A dying fish was flopping on a hot deck. An animal activist called throwing it back in the water an act of kindness. The state called it theft. The value of St. Petersburg’s most internet famous flying fish? About $6.
Now, Michael Leaming will have to pay a $500 fine and court costs after a judge found him guilty of depriving Robert Hope of his dinner by launching a tilapia into Crescent Lake in July 2017. A video of the exchange in Crescent Lake Park went viral and was reposted to various social media platforms around the world, racking up millions of views.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission referred the case to the State Attorney’s Office. At first, the state charged Leaming with “interference with taking of fish.” But late Thursday, a day before the non-jury trial in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, the state changed its charge to petit theft.That may what you can buy an farmed Tilapia, but there must be a premium for wild caught one (there is for Striped Bass). And if they based the price on what the fisherman invested in gear, the price could be astronomical! (Trust me on this).
Prosecutors discovered the interference charge is only for state waters, not a city-owned property like Crescent Lake, said State Attorney spokesman Frank Piazza. The other two charges the commission had recommended were battery, for taking the fish from under the foot of Hope’s wife, and petit theft. The theft charge seemed more appropriate, Piazza said.
Hope planned to cook the fish for dinner that night. A fish and wildlife investigator testified that, by the size of the fish and the price per pound of tilapia, the fish was worth about $6.
Judge Robert Dittmer acknowledged that people get passionate about issues, but said the state has granted fishermen the right to fish the waters. He noted that commercial fisherman often put their catch on ice immediately, where the fish are left to die. He feared letting the door open on this could lead to sabotage of fishing vessels.
Dittmer withheld adjudication so Leaming’s record is clear. He also didn’t impose probation as the state had requested. Leaming could have been sentenced to 60 days in jail, six months probation and mandatory counseling.
After the trial, Leaming said he was happy he won’t have a guilty verdict but felt it was unfair to suddenly have to face a theft charge when they had prepared for the interference claim. He was sure he would have won that.
“I’m glad that my dad’s not guilty,” Landon Leaming said. “I felt sad that it was happening to this fish and I wanted to help the fish.”