Federal prosecutors filed charges Wednesday against a sushi chef and a Santa Monica restaurant on allegations that they served illegal and endangered whale meat. Typhoon Restaurant Inc., which owns The Hump restaurant, and sushi chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 45, were charged with illegally selling an endangered species product, a misdemeanor. According to a search warrant, marine mammal activists were served whale during three separate visits to the restaurant. Federal labs confirmed the meat came from a Sei whale, an endangered species protected by international treaties, documents said. Agents also seized some suspected whale meat during a search of the restaurant Friday but are awaiting test results to confirm it was Sei whale, U.S. attorney spokesman Thom Mrozak said. In October, two activists posing as customers went to The Hump and ordered "omakase," which means they let the chef choose the choicest fresh fish. They also requested whale and pocketed a sample.
The young women worked with Louie Psihoyos, director of the Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove," to record the meal with a hidden camera and microphone.
"These are endangered animals being cut up for dinner," Psihoyos said. "It's an abuse of science."
Psihoyos took their findings to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which started an investigation.
Activists claim the whale meat came from Japan's scientific whaling program and was illegally exported, but the U.S. attorney's office is still investigating the source of the meat. Japan kills hundreds of whales in Antarctic waters each year under its research whaling program, which has triggered violent protests by conservationists and caused strong objections by diplomats in recent years.
An attorney for Typhoon, Gary Lincenberg, said the restaurant accepts responsibility for serving whale and will agree to pay a fine. If convicted, the company could be fined up to $200,000. Court records say agents interviewed Yamamoto, a Culver City resident and a chef at The Hump for the past seven years, and he admitted serving whale to two young women.
Yamamoto's attorney, Mark Byrne, declined to comment on the charges, saying he hadn't had time to review them. If convicted, Yamamoto could face a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. During the October restaurant visit, animal rights activist Crystal Galbraith, 27, and a friend who spoke fluent Japanese racked up a bill of $600, feasting on increasingly exotic dishes to gain the confidence of the waiters and chef.
"It was heartbreaking to eat an endangered animal, but I knew that I was doing it to save" the whales, said Galbraith, a vegan. "We were there eating for four hours. I felt so full and sick." The waitress brought out a dish of whale sushi, identifying the whale in English and Japanese, court documents said. The dish was listed as whale on the check and cost $85.
The team sent samples to Scott Baker, a professor and cetacean specialist at Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute, for genetic testing. The results showed the meat was from a Sei whale, court records said.
The Sei whale is a baleen whale found throughout the world's oceans, and known for its graceful and quick swimming and its long, low vocalizations, Baker said. Fully grown, the mammal is longer than a bus.
Eating Sei whale meat is common in Japan, Korea and Norway and among native peoples in Alaska and Canada, but it is illegal to export the meat because of the Sei whale's endangered status. In late February, when Psihoyos and the rest of his team were in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards, Galbraith and another friend returned to The Hump twice more.
This time, agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sat at the bar and watched Yamamoto at work, court records said. During the third visit, another agent watched the chef go to his car and retrieve a package wrapped in clear plastic.