CITY HALL — Federal prosecutors Wednesday filed criminal charges against a chef and the owners of The Hump, a highly-regarded sushi restaurant at the Santa Monica Airport, for allegedly selling banned whale meat.

Prosecutors claim The Hump sold undercover operatives sei whale meat, some of which was obtained from the back of a Mercedes. Sei whales are listed as an endangered species and it is illegal to sell whale meat in the United States under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, prosecutors said.

The filing comes a day after city officials said they were conducting their own investigation, looking closely at The Hump’s lease and business license to see if both could be revoked if the proprietors are found guilty. City Hall owns the space where The Hump and its sister restaurant Typhoon are located, receiving roughly $44,000 a year in base rent on top of a percentage of gross receipts. City officials would not disclose any information on receipt numbers.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the City Council Tuesday night that nearly all leases with City Hall contain language requiring tenants to abide by the law.

If found guilty, The Hump’s parent company, Typhoon Restaurant, Inc., and chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, a 45-year-old resident of Culver City, could face a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison and a maximum fine of $100,000 for an individual and $200,000 for an organization, prosecutors said.

“Someone should not be able to walk into a restaurant and order a plate of an endangered species,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr.

“Federal law has a variety of provisions, including criminal statutes, intended to protect this planet’s threatened natural resources,” Birotte added. “People should be aware that we will use these criminal statutes where appropriate to protect endangered species, including to ensure that they do not end up part of a meal.”

According to the criminal complaint and a search warrant that was executed at the restaurant last Friday evening, The Hump sold whale sushi to customers on three occasions dating back to October. 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. Additionally, receipts given to customers at The Hump indicated that they had purchased “whale.”

Word of the unusual offering at The Hump came from the team behind the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” which wore tiny microphones and a small video camera to record three meals at The Hump.

Yamamoto and representatives of The Hump will be summoned to make initial court appearances in United States District Court in the coming weeks.

Moutrie said her office’s investigation would be completed in time for the March 23 City Council meeting, at which time a member of the council could place the issue on the agenda.

“The City Attorney’s Office is vigorously investigating this — looking at the lease and business license,” said Kate Vernez, assistant to the Santa Monica city manager for community and government relations. “We are always concerned whenever a local business or lessee may have violated the law — even more so for environmental laws.”

Councilman Richard Bloom called for a thorough and swift examination, saying he was outraged to learn about the allegations against The Hump.

“I will be asking the city attorney to take every action within her purview to make certain this never happens again,” Bloom said.

Complicating matters is the unusual lease agreement, which covers The Hump and Typhoon. Airport manager Bob Trimborn said The Hump was incorporated into Typhoon’s lease and it is unclear what would happen to Typhoon if the owners were found guilty. Moutrie could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

An attorney for The Hump, which gets its name from an aviation term for the Himalayas, said Tuesday the restaurant is cooperating with the federal investigation, but would not comment further. He did not return phone calls Wednesday.

The Hump has been open for over 10 years.

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