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Santa Monica sushi restaurant charged with illegally selling whale meat

The eatery admits the wrongdoing, its attorney says. Federal agents and animal activists cooperated in a video sting orchestrated by a producer of the Oscar-winning documentary 'The Cove.'

March 11, 2010|By Martha Groves

Federal prosecutors Wednesday filed criminal charges against a Santa Monica sushi restaurant and one of its chefs, alleging they had sold meat from an endangered whale.

The Hump, a hip hangout at Santa Monica Airport, immediately said through attorney Gary Lincenberg that it accepted "responsibility for the wrongdoing charged by the U.S. attorney" and would pay a fine and resolve the matter in court.

Named in the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, were Typhoon Restaurant Inc., owner of the Hump, and chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 45, of Culver City.

The illegal sale of a marine mammal product is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000 for an individual and $200,000 for an organization, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

The Hump came under fire after allegations surfaced in Tuesday's New York Times that it had served meat from an endangered sei whale, possibly straight from the trunk of a white Mercedes-Benz.

To provide evidence, federal agents and animal activists had cooperated in a video sting orchestrated by the associate producer of the Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove."

"Someone should not be able to walk into a restaurant and order a plate of an endangered species," U.S. Atty. André Birotte Jr. wrote in a news release.

The revelations rattled the extensive "green" community in Santa Monica, which prides itself on its environmental and animal-rights credentials as well as its many foodie-rated restaurants.

Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, said he was shocked by the idea that a local restaurant would serve slices of endangered whale under the noses of so many environmentalists.

"This is something I never thought would happen in Santa Monica, less than two miles from . . . the offices of Heal the Bay, Santa Monica Baykeeper and the NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council]," he said.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is illegal to sell any kind of whale meat in the United States, and sei are listed as endangered. Sei whales are the third-largest baleen whale, behind the blue and finback whales.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday, Councilman Kevin McKeown -- a vegetarian -- asked the city attorney's office to investigate whether a violation of the law would be grounds for revoking the Hump's business license.

Santa Monica Councilman Richard Bloom, chairman of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and a recent appointee to the California Coastal Commission, said the city "will do everything in our power to make sure the situation is corrected and never happens again."

As it happens, the Hump (a slang aviation term referring to the Himalayas) and an adjacent eatery, Typhoon, are in lease negotiations with the city of Santa Monica. That process had begun before the whale meat issue came to light.

Regardless of how the federal case proceeds, "they have a separate legal obligation with the city," said spokeswoman Kate Vernez. "We will evaluate it and will take into account this news."

Zoli Ignite Teglas, who sings with the band Pennywise and is the music and outreach coordinator for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a marine wildlife conservation group, said in an interview that he got a tip the Hump was serving whale meat and alerted Charles Hambleton, associate producer of "The Cove."

Teglas said they enlisted two female animal activists -- both vegans -- and used a tiny video camera to record them as they were served a $600 omakase, or chef's choice, meal at the Hump. The two activists asked whether they could get whale meat, and a waitress then served eight pieces of what she called "whale," according to an affidavit provided by the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

The activists bagged samples of the meat and slipped them into a purse. The samples were sent to Scott Baker, associate director of the highly regarded Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. Baker determined that the meat was sei whale.

Armed with a search warrant, federal officials entered the restaurant Friday night to search for evidence. The investigation was conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"The first thing I would want to know is where the whale meat came from," said Councilman Bloom, adding that he expects the restaurant to issue "a sincere, unequivocal apology."

martha.groves @latimes.com

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