A now-closed Santa Monica restaurant and two sushi chefs who worked there were indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury on charges of smuggling and selling the meat of a protected whale species.
The parent company of The Hump Sushi Bar & Restaurant, which closed at Santa Monica Airport in 2010, could be fined $1.2 million.
Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 48, of Culver City, Susumu Ueda, 39, of Lawndale, and Typhoon Restaurant, Inc., are accused of illegally importing and selling the meat of sei whales.
It is illegal to sell any kind of whale meat in the United States. Sei whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and are listed as endangered in the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The company and Yamamoto were initially charged in 2010, but the counts were soon dismissed. However, further investigation resulted in new charges, prosecutors said.
The first word of the unusual offering at The Hump came in 2010 from the Oscar-winning team behind the documentary "The Cove."
The filmmakers tipped off federal officials that the restaurant was serving sushi identified as sei whale. The meat was discovered in visits to the restaurant by undercover agents and environmental advocates who pocketed the sushi for testing.
Yamamoto is charged with concealing the purchase of whale meat and the restaurant's source, and instructing other sushi chefs at The Hump to do the same. Ueda is charged with lying to a federal agent about the source of the whale meat. If convicted, Yamamoto could face a maximum sentence of 67 years in federal prison; Ueda could face a maximum of 10 years.
Ueda's attorney, James Spertus, said his client was "behind a counter making sushi" and would have had "no idea where the meat came from."
"If you buy some oranges from the store, you do know where they came from," Spertus said. "Ralphs knows—you do not."
According to the indictment, the whale meat was ordered through a seafood dealer named Ginichi Ohira.
In 2010, Ohira pleaded guilty to knowingly violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act. According to the indictment, "Ohira would deliver it to [The Hump], as well as an invoice that would incorrectly describe the whale meat as 'Tokusen Ootot (AK),' 'Gokujiyo Ootora (BK),' or 'Gokujiyo Ootoro (OM,' in order to conceal the importation and sale of the whale meat."
The Hump closed after the makers of the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove informed federal officials about Ohira's alleged actions.
According to the Los Angeles Times, an associate producer of the film had two activists order the $600 "chef's choice" meal at the restaurant. Informants ordered the whale meat on three occasions between the fall of 2009 and early 2010, according to the indictment. The informants turned over the meat to scientists, who tested it and confirmed it to be sei whale.
Receipts from the informants' meals also identified their orders contained whale. In March 2010, environmentalists protested in front of the restaurant, demanding its closure.
Yamamoto is currently listed as the executive chef and co-owner of Yamakase, an exclusive, invitation-only Japanese restaurant in the Palms neighborhood.
Arraignment for Yamamoto, Ueda and representatives of the restaurant will be scheduled for the upcoming weeks.
— Patch editor Jenna Chandler and City News Service contributed to this report.