Arguing that a Santa Monica restaurant’s admission of selling whale meat and the anticipated fine it faces is not enough of a response, local community members and environmental advocates held a protest to call attention to the treatment of endangered marine species.
Protesters rallied outside the Hump restaurant at Santa Monica Airport Friday, March 12th, some wearing whale-shaped hats, holding signs denouncing the sale of whale meat. The event came days after Typhoon Restaurant, Inc., the parent company of the Hump restaurant, and 45-year-old chef Kiyoshiro Yamamoto were charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles with illegally selling a marine mammal product for an unauthorized purpose.
The case was uncovered through a “sting” operation organized by the outreach coordinator of Sea Sheperd Conservation Society and producers of the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove” in which undercover customers asked for, and were served whale meat by the restaurant on three occasions dating to October.
The customers retrieved some samples that were tested by scientists who determined that the meat was that of the Sei, an endangered whale species, according to the criminal complaint. Customer receipts additionally indicated the purchase of whale, the complaint states.
“(The customers) asked what it is and they said whale. They had no fear about serving whale meat,” Alec Pedersen of the Oceanic Preservation Society said, explaining the operation.
The sale of any kind of whale meat is illegal in the United States and Sei whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The restaurant owner and chef were each charged after a federal search warrant was served at the Hump March 5th. The misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison and a maximum fine of $100,000 for an individual or $200,000 for an organization.
“Someone should not be able to walk into a restaurant and order a plate of an endangered species,” U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, Jr. said when filing the charges.
Representatives of the Hump acknowledged on its Web site that the charge of selling whale meat is true and though they cannot change that fact, they plan to put in place procedures to ensure compliance and hope to again earn the trust of their customers.
“The Hump served whale meat to customers looking to eat what in Japan is widely served as a delicacy. In serving this meat, the Hump ignored its responsibilities to help save endangered whales from extinction and failed to support the world community in its uphill fight to protect all endangered species,” the restaurant statement said.
“We sincerely apologize. We pledge to work hard to re-earn the trust of the public and respect of our customers.”
But some protesters said the apology does not erase the fact that whale meat was sold at this and possibly other restaurants, and the fine is not enough of a penalty. Among the signs at the protest were “Sei No to the Hump” and “No Whale Sushi.”
“Acknowledging that they’re doing it and paying the penalty won’t begin to make up for the crime of slaughtering these animals,” said Santa Monica resident Bonnie Whitaker, a protester who added that she was horrified in learning of the sale.
Mike Catherwood braved the warm temperatures in a whale suit to “put a face to the whale,” and said he felt the event was an important cause for people to rally behind.
“It’s a shame that one single restaurant needs to be made an example of but regardless of what the restaurant said, this is a peaceful and reasonable way of raising awareness,” he said.
Other community members said they were particularly surprised that a case such as this occurred in Santa Monica, a city with a number of environmentally friendly policies in place.
“This is not an anomaly; it’s happening elsewhere and it’s completely unacceptable for any restaurant to serve an endangered species,” said Sarah Sikich, coastal resources director of Heal the Bay.
“As a local organization we feel the responsibility to put pressure on the City of Santa Monica as a local government to address this issue appropriately. This doesn’t help with the green legacy that the city has had.”
The City Council has asked City Attorney Marsha Moutrie and City Manager Rod Gould to look into the Hump’s business license and lease to operate on city property and is scheduled to consider the issue at its March 23rd meeting. City Councilman Kevin McKeown, who said officials were “appalled” to learn of the sale of Sei whale, added that they will address the leasing issue appropriately.
“As for the lease, well, when a whale leaps out of the ocean into view it’s called a ‘breach.’ If this restaurant has breached its lease, we’ll act appropriately,” McKeown said.