LOS ANGELES — It made for a wild tale three years ago when a Santa Monica sushi restaurant abruptly closed after it was disclosed the hipster hangout was selling illegal whale meat.
The Hump at the Santa Monica Airport closed, and its chef and parent company were charged with misdemeanors after a sting operation was captured by a documentary crew.
But the stakes have been raised. A federal grand jury has indicted the owners of the parent company and two of its former chefs, charging them with felonies that carry lengthy prison terms.
The two chefs and the ownership group of The Hump are charged with nine counts of conspiracy to import and sell whale meat from 2007 to 2010, a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
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The indictment accuses Typhoon Restaurant, the parent company of the now-closed Hump restaurant; chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto, 48, of Culver City; and chef Susumu Ueda, 39, of Lawndale, of conspiring to import and sell the meat of Sei whales, which are listed as an endangered species.
According to an indictment, 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.
The arrangement allegedly went on for three years. The Hump sold whale sushi to informants posing as customers on three specific occasions in fall 2009 and in early 2010.
Federal agents and animal activists had cooperated in a video sting orchestrated by the associate producer of the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove.”
Whale meat is popular in Japan and Norway and is fished controversially by the Japanese whaling fleet, but importing it into the United States is illegal.
Yamamoto could face up to 67 years in federal prison, and Ueda could serve up to 10 years if convicted. The restaurant’s parent company faces fines of $1.2 million.