Oscar Winners Nab Restaurant in 'Sushi Sting'

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Oscar Winners Nab Restaurant in 'Sushi Sting'

From Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project
March 2010

These Oscar winners have a lot on their plate.

The makers of "The Cove" arrived in Hollywood to accept a best documentary award for the film, which chronicles the horrors of dolphin hunting in a small Japanese fishing village. But that wasn't the only reason the team was in town. By the time they hit the red carpet Sunday, the filmmakers say they had already caught a swanky restaurant serving whale meat in an undercover sting operation that could end in a federal indictment.

Whale meat is illegal in the U.S. So when the movie's associate producer, Charles Hambleton, heard rumors that the Hump, a popular Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant, was serving the Japanese delicacy, he and his team took action. According to The New York Times, Hambleton, a photographer who has a degree in environmental microbiology from the University of Vermont, designed a hidden camera for his fellow filmmakers so they could document their meal. Their work was coordinated with federal law enforcement officials.

When they went to the restaurant Feb. 28, the team says, they were able to order whale from the sushi bar. The Times reported that the team sent text messages to the film's director, Louie Psihoyos, who relayed the meal's ingredients to the law enforcement officials.

In the first courses, nothing out of the ordinary landed on the filmmakers' plates. "Toro and sea urchin, nothing exciting," one text message read. But then the illicit meat arrived at their table. "Whale coming now!" another text said.

A DNA test of the meat revealed what the environmentally minded filmmakers, who are vegans, had suspected: The endangered Sei whale was being served.

Now, the Hump is the subject of a federal investigation that could result in fines of up to $20,000 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"A warrant has been issued," Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, told Aol News in a brief phone interview Tuesday morning. He did not say what the charges could be, but noted they could come as early as this week. According to a 13-page affidavit obtained by Aol News, there is "probable cause to believe that the Hump has illegally possessed and sold whale meat."

A lawyer for the restaurant, Gary Lincenberg, told the Times, "We're going to look into the allegations and try to determine what is true."

Psihoyos told the Times that his team's ambitions extend beyond sushi bars. "This isn't just about saving whales," he said, "but about saving the planet."

But for some groups, saving whales is exactly what getting the mammals off the menu is about.

Naomi Rose, a whale biologist with the Humane Society, told AOL News there is "no humane method for killing whales. And that's a fact."

In a phone interview Tuesday morning, Rose said that while the meat is extremely rare in the U.S., she'd heard rumors that some "high-end specialty restaurants in places like Los Angeles" might be selling whale and dolphin. She applauded the filmmakers' efforts.

"I'm not in a position where I can go into restaurants like that," she said. "But if someone has gone into that restaurant to lower the boom on them, I think that's fabulous."

Others are concerned about high levels of mercury in whale and dolphin meat.

Meanwhile, the Japanese fishing village of Taiji, where "The Cove" was filmed and 2,000 dolphins are killed every year, is not happy with the documentary. "There are different food traditions within Japan and around the world," the mayor's office said in a statement to The Associated Press today. "It is important to respect and understand regional food cultures, which are based on traditions with long histories."

Indeed, the team behind "The Cove" has already inspired a television series based on its award-winning documentary. A new show on Animal Planet, "Dolphin Warriors," will follow animal activist Ric O'Barry as he works to expose cruelty in the dolphin industry. O'Barry, a one-time trainer on the 1960s TV show "Flipper," says many of the industry's practices are barbaric.

"They've created an artificial cove out of nets, and they drive the dolphins in there and kill them so we can't photograph it," O'Barry told the Los Angeles Times. "But we have some drones and small planes and things to prove it."