In 2010, the activist-filmmakers behind The Cove, the award-winning documentary exposing the brutal dolphin killings in Taiji, Japan, decided that even after worldwide acclaim and an Oscar win, they weren’t finished protecting the ocean’s endangered mammals. Setting up an undercover sting operation, they revealed that a popular Santa Monica sushi restaurant, named “The Hump,” was illegally selling endangered species meat to diners.
Their efforts initially resulted in misdemeanor charges brought against The Hump’s parent company, Typhoon Restaurant, Inc., as well two of its chefs, Kiyoshiro Yamamoto and Susumu Ueda. But the Los Angeles Times reports that following a further investigation, those charges were bumped up this week to nine felony counts of importing and selling endangered sei whale meat, a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
As a result, chef Yamamoto in particular could face up to 67 years in prison.
Louie Psihoyos, The Cove’s Oscar-winning filmmaker and the executive director of The Oceanic Preservation Society, tells TakePart, “Today we are giving this animal and other endangered animals a voice that will be heard around the world—it’s a warning that to traffic these animals in America, the second biggest market in the world for endangered species…and you do it at the risk of becoming a caged animal.”
Though the Japanese commercial whaling industry is permitted to hunt the animals for scientific research purposes, they cannot legally kill them to sell for human consumption. Nonetheless, there exists a long-standing international outcry against the scientific research loophole; opponents state it’s simply a thinly veiled excuse used by the industry to carry on the illegal fishing practices responsible for decimating whale populations. Stateside, the import or sale of whale meat for any purpose is banned.
In a series of visits spanning from late 2009 to 2010, members of The Cove team armed themselves with hidden video equipment, and posing as diners, ordered whale meat from The Hump’s dinner menu. The New York Times reports they collected samples of their meals and through DNA tracing, were able to confirm that a sample of that meat did in fact come from a sei whale sold in Japan.
Heather Rally was instrumental in that operation. She posed as one of the diners and tells TakePart, “This case represents so much more than just a sushi restaurant selling whale meat...we are fighting the fate of an entire species and ultimately the fate of the planet. The case demonstrated a blatant disregard for animal and environmental protection laws in this country at a time when entire ecosystems are being threatened by human activities. This is an unacceptable sacrifice for the sake of human indulgence.”
After its illegal whale meat operation was exposed, The Hump promptly shuttered its doors. In addition to chef Yamamoto’s possible 67-year prison sentence, chef Susumu Ueda faces up to ten years in prison. Typhoon Restaurant, Inc. could pay up to $1.2 million in fines.
The Los Angeles Times reports that in reaction to the indictment, chef Ueda’s attorney, James W. Spertus, said, “It’s very unfortunate that the U.S. attorney’s office has decided to charge my client after years of doing nothing. The case was charged initially as a misdemeanor.”
But Rally doesn’t see it that way. She explains, “This indictment is a defining one. It represents a shift in our attitude towards the environment…We have reached a critical time in history when species are disappearing before our eyes and yet the global trade in endangered animal products is flourishing. In my opinion, this case is a victory for the future of the planet.”
The defendants are due back in court in the coming weeks, but until then, Psihoyos says this fight is far from over. “The Hump is just one sting in a long series of busts my organization has been involved in. Very soon I hope to see a parade of these traffickers going to jail.”
What kind of punishment do you think is fair for traffickers profiting off the sale of endangered animals? Let us know in the Comments.