The Hump at the Santa Monica Airport on Tuesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SM AIRPORT — The Hump, one of the most highly-regarded sushi restaurants in the region, is the subject of a federal investigation, with investigators claiming chefs there sell banned whale meat to adventurous diners looking for something a little more exotic than yellowtail.

Armed with a search warrant, federal officials on Friday went to collect evidence from the restaurant, including marine mammal parts as well as various records and documents. The possession or sale of marine mammals is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and can lead to a year in prison and a fine of $20,000.

Federal officials, who could file charges this week, said they were tipped off by confidential informants, who were identified by the New York Times as the team behind Sunday’s Oscar-winning documentary film “The Cove,” which exposed illegal dolphin hunting off a village in Japan.

The crew from “The Cove” led investigators to the restaurant this month after conducting their own surveillance operation in which they used video cameras and tiny microphones to document the alleged illegal activity.

The sushi sting began in October when the documentary’s associate producer Charles Hambleton heard from friends that The Hump, a highly-rated sushi restaurant next to the runway at the Santa Monica Airport, was serving whale, specifically sei whale, which is protected under the MMPA. Hambleton, who has worked as a water safety consultant on Hollywood movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” created a tiny camera for two animal activists to use during a session of omakase — a sushi meal in which the chef picks all the dishes.

The two activists, one of whom spoke fluent Japanese, asked a waitress if the restaurant served whale meat. The waitress said they did and served whale to both activists. The waitress also served horse, according to the affidavit. This was captured in video and audio footage.

The activists, who are reportedly vegans, collected four pieces of meat from the dish and placed them in a Ziploc bag inside a purse. After the meal, the activists received a receipt from The Hump which had “whale” and “horse” handwritten on it with a cost $85 written next to those words, according to investigators.

After paying the bill, the activists sent the meat to Dr. Scott Baker at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, who is an expert in molecular genetics with 16 years of experience in the genetic identification of whale and dolphin products from Japanese and Korean markets. Baker, who served as an advisor on “The Cove,” ran tests on the samples and determined them to be sei whale, which are found worldwide and are endangered but are sometimes hunted in the North Pacific under a controversial Japanese scientific program.

“I was pretty shocked,” Baker said in an interview with the Daily Press. “There has been suspicion for years that whale meat was being sold at high-end Japanese restaurants and at various places around the world, like Hong Kong … , but to have it sold essentially openly in Santa Monica, that was pretty surprising.”

Serving unusual fish imported from Japan is the hallmark of many high-end sushi restaurants, and whale meat is often found in Japanese markets for as much as $600 a kilogram, Baker said. But he said he had never heard of it being served in an American restaurant.

On Feb. 28, the activists returned to The Hump along with reinforcements who sat at the sushi bar to observe what was being prepared. Once again the activists asked for whale meat and it was served. The activists saved the meat and handed it over to a special agent, who sent them to a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to be analyzed. On March 2, the biologist informed the special agent that the meat samples were sei whale.

On March 4, the activists returned for a third meal. Agents with NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection sat at the sushi bar. The activists again specifically asked for whale and were served, according to the affidavit.

During the meal, a chef left the sushi bar and went to a nearby parking lot. An agent followed, observing from a nearby stairwell as the chef walked back to the restaurant after going to a white Mercedes. The chef was seen with a clear plastic package that seemed to contain some meat. The chef returned to the sushi bar, opened the package and began to cut up the meat, which he later said was whale.

Representatives at The Hump could not be reached for comment. An attorney representing the restaurant said there would be no comment until the investigation is completed.

“We will work cooperatively with the federal government and deal with things as they occur,” said attorney Gary Lincenberg.

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