A now-closed Santa Monica sushi restaurant and two chefs have been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly serving up meat from federally protected sei whales, it was announced today.
The nine-count indictment, filed in Los Angeles federal court, names Typhoon Restaurant, Inc., the parent company of now-shuttered eatery The Hump, which was located at Santa Monica Airport; and sushi chefs Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 48, of Culver City, and Susumu Ueda, 39, of Lawndale.
The indictment accuses the restaurant and cooks with conspiring to import and sell meat from an endangered species.
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 and Ueda allegedly ordered the whale meat from Gardena-based seafood dealer Ginichi Ohira, a Japanese national who previously pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of illegally selling a marine mammal product.
Once Ohira imported the whale meat from Tokyo to the United States, he prepared an invoice that incorrectly described the meat as fatty tuna and delivered the whale meat to The Hump, according to the indictment that describes a conspiracy that lasted from 2007 into 2010.
According to the indictment and documents previously filed in this matter, The Hump sold whale sushi to informants posing as customers on three specific occasions in the fall of 2009 and in early 2010.
The meat sold as "whale" on two of the occasions was examined by scientists, who tested the DNA of the meat and determined it was sei whale, and receipts given to the informants who went to The Hump indicated that they had purchased "whale," according to an affidavit previously filed.
The Hump apologized and closed its doors in spring 2010. At the time, the restaurant owner admitted serving up sei, pledged to make a substantial contribution to whale preservation or endangered species groups and shut down entirely.
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.
In addition to the conspiracy charge, The Hump is charged with smuggling and Yamamoto is charged with two counts of smuggling, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The Hump is also charged with a misdemeanor count of the sale of a marine mammal product for an unauthorized purpose, and Yamamoto is charged with two misdemeanor counts of sale of a marine mammal product for an unauthorized purpose.
Yamamoto is additionally charged with obstructing an official proceeding. Contained in that charges is an allegation that Yamamoto instructed other sushi chefs at The Hump to lie about the source of the whale meat, prosecutors said.
Ueda is additionally charged with making a false statement to federal investigators about the source of the whale meat.
If convicted of all charges, Yamamoto could face up to 67 years in federal prison, and Ueda would face up to 10 years, prosecutors said. Typhoon Restaurant would face fines totaling $1.2 million upon conviction.
Yamamoto, Ueda and representatives of The Hump are expected to be arraigned in Los Angeles federal court in the coming weeks.
The investigation was conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Law Enforcement. NOAA investigators received assistance from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish & Game, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.