DOWNTOWN — Banned meat from whales killed as part of Japan’s controversial “scientific” hunt was served at The Hump and an upscale sushi restaurant in Seoul, South Korean, according to a DNA analysis published Wednesday.

Scientists say they have found clear evidence that whale meat is illegally sold in restaurants in the U.S. and South Korea in violation of a global whale ban imposed 14 years ago. Japan has invoked an exception in the ban for scientific research, dispatching a whaling fleet that harpoons several hundred whales a year and brings home tons of whale meat that is sold across Japan.

In what could be a major blow to the Japanese government, the DNA analysis suggests that distribution of whale meat may be poorly managed and could be flowing into an international smuggling network.

“The illegal trade of products from protected species of whales, presumably taken under a national permit for scientific research, is a timely reminder of the need for independent, transparent and robust monitoring of any future whaling,” said the author’s of the study, which appeared online in the journal Biology Letters, published by the London-based Royal Society.

Scientists tested pieces of sei whale meat sold last October at The Hump, a Santa Monica-based sushi restaurant whose owners and a chef are facing federal charges for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The tests revealed that the meat samples were “identical” to whale products purchased in Japan in 2007 and 2008.

The authors said the meat came from a sei whale killed in the North Pacific during a Japanese scientific hunt. Last month, the owners of The Hump apologized to customers for serving whale sushi and have since closed the restaurant.

The DNA analysis also matched fin whale meat served last year in a Seoul restaurant to fin whale products sold in Japan. Japan killed 13 fin whales between 2005 and 2008, and it is “highly likely” the meat purchased in South Korea and Japan came from the same whale, according to the study.

Federal officials were alerted to the sale of illegal whale meat at The Hump after the team behind the Oscar-award winning documentary “The Cove” conducted an undercover investigation, capturing video of a waitress at the restaurant serving whale. The team also had receipts from The Hump that had the word “whale” written on them.

The owners of The Hump and a chef are expected back in federal court on May 10.

Authors of the study said Japan should be required to make public a register of the DNA of all the whales it catches so that illegally traded meat can be tracked.

The study was conducted by 11 scientists from the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

kevinh@smdp.com

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