SM AIRPORT ‚Äî The owners of a shuttered sushi restaurant and two chefs who worked there have been charged by federal prosecutors for allegedly serving customers meat from endangered whales.
The nine-count indictment, which was filed Thursday afternoon, charges Typhoon Restaurant Inc., which is the parent company of the now-closed The Hump restaurant; Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 48, of Culver City, Calif., and Susumu Ueda, 39, of Lawndale, Calif.
All are accused of conspiring to import and sell whale meat, specifically meat from Sei whales, which are listed as an endangered species and are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
If they are convicted of the charges against them, Yamamoto would face a statutory maximum penalty of 67 years in federal prison, and Ueda would face a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years.
If it is convicted, Typhoon Restaurant, Inc. would face fines totaling $1.2 million.
Federal officials were alerted to the sale of illegal whale meat at The Hump in 2010 after the team behind the Oscar-award winning documentary “The Cove” conducted an undercover investigation, capturing video of a waitress at the restaurant allegedly serving whale. They also went so far as to send meat samples to the Marine Mammal Institute for DNA testing, which later showed the meat did come from Sei whales.
The Hump, formerly located at the Santa Monica Airport, closed in March of 2010 after the media reported on the federal investigation. The owners at the time said the closure was “a self-imposed punishment.”
Federal prosecutors initially filed a criminal complaint then against Yamamoto and The Hump but dismissed the case soon after. They continued investigating, which led to the indictment that added Ueda and a number of other charges, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the Department of Justice in Los Angeles.
Gary Lincenberg, attorney for the restaurant group that owned The Hump, said in an e-mail that his client is disappointed that the charges were re-filed “years after the owner of The Hump made substantial donations to several nonprofit groups dedicated to saving endangered species.”
“At this point we‚Äôll address the matter in the courtroom,” he added.
Yamamoto and Ueda allegedly ordered the whale meat from Ginichi Ohira, a Japanese national who previously pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of illegally selling a marine mammal product. Once Ohira received the whale meat in 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.
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 they are listed as endangered in the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
In addition to the conspiracy charge, the restaurant group is charged with smuggling and Yamamoto is charged with two counts of smuggling.
The restaurant group 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 is an allegation that Yamamoto instructed other sushi chefs at The Hump to lie about the source of the whale meat.
Ueda is additionally charged with making a false statement to federal investigators about the source of the whale meat.
Yamamoto, Ueda and representatives of The Hump will be summoned to appear for arraignments in United States District Court in the coming weeks.
Anyone with information about the illegal sale of marine mammals is encouraged to call the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Law Enforcement hotline at (800) 853-1964.