LA Sushi chef who served endangered whale could face maximum sentence of life in prison

Remember the LA sushi scandal involving a chef who served up endangered Sei whale meat at The Hump, a once-popular restaurant next to the Santa Monica Airport? It was a sting set up in 2009 by one of the activist-producers of the movie The Cove, and it worked.

Three years later, the US Attorney's office in LA today announced that a federal grand jury has indicted the parent company of the now-closed venue, and two of its chefs. Typhoon Restaurant Inc. and sushi chefs Kiyoshiro Yamamoto and Susumu Ueda are named in the nine-count indictment.

If convicted and given the maximum sentence, 48-year-old Yamamoto could end up behind bars for up to 67 years, which would effectively be a life sentence. 39-year-old Ueda could face up to 10 years. The parent company, Typhoon, which continues to operate another popular restaurant next door to the Hump's former site, could be fined up to $1.2 million.

The indictments include selling sei whale meat, engaging in conspiracy to import and sell the endangered mammal's meat, and lying to federal investigators. From the LA Times:

Yamamoto, 48, and Ueda, 39, allegedly ordered the whale meat from Ginichi Ohira, who has already pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge. According to the U.S. attorney's office, Ohira received the whale meat in the U.S., prepared an invoice that described the meat as fatty tuna and delivered it to the Hump.

Court documents show that on one occasion, the restaurant paid Ohira more than $15,000 for the whale meat. In October 2009, marine mammal activists posing as customers were served whale during a visit to the restaurant. Whale meat was served to the activists two other times, federal prosecutors said.

More coverage at the LA Times, and the LA Weeekly's Informer blog.

Many species of fish served in American sushi restaurants are effectively endangered species, thanks to overfishing and destructive fishing methods. One could argue that 67 years in prison is an awfully long time for serving up one endangered marine species, when any number of others are also threatened. That said, the lying to feds part may have been what ratcheted the charges up to such dramatic levels.

What do you think?


  1. There are environmental protection laws that make sense that include fines and jail time and then there is just idiotic “throw-the-book-at-the-to-set-an-example” sentences with these laws.

    Should these chefs get jail time and fines? Of course. 

    Should they get jail time equal to first-degree murder of a human (hell, more than one human)? You got to be kidding me. 

    I don’t even think the skipper of the Exxon Valdez got as much jail time as this.


    1. If your case is in the media, you’re shunted from the main branch of the criminal justice system to the propaganda department.

    2. I would be ok with it if it stopped others from doing it. The time seems harsh- but what’s harsher than an entire species dying out. One more human in jail vs. that.

    3.  Serving whale meat is a misdemeanor. The major weight of the potential sentence is on the conspiracy, smuggling, obstruction of justice and lying to the Feds. Yamamoto told the restaurant employees to lie to the Feds, according to the charges. It wasn’t the crime so much as the cover up. Additionally, the 67 years is if he is convicted on all charges and given maximum sentences to run consecutively. If the US attorney has a strong case, it will be pled down on advice of the defense and Yamamoto will be sentenced on the misdemeanor and a smuggling charge, given a big fine and the minimum sentence on the top charge. No guns, no crack cocaine, and no terrorism equals six months at Taft Correctional or FCI Sheridan if wants to stay on the west coast, or FPC Montgomery or Pensacola if he doesn’t mind trading the distance from Santa Monica for plushness of the “prison”. When he gets out he can go back to Nihon a big cultural hero, and make the big bux. Spare me your pearl clutching.

      1. Sounds like someone’s been down.  Good point about the consecutive vs concurrent — it’s almost never mentioned in the popular media, but it’s a BFD as far as sentencing goes, and at the state level at least the default is for concurrent terms.

    4. There’s a big difference between potential jail time and what you actually get: first degree murder cases typically start with death on the table, so I wouldn’t get worked up until I heard the final result.

      That said, the environmentalist in me would like to point out that while Sei whales are critically endangered, we’re not exactly running out of people.

      1. True about the potential jail time.

        Also, I grew up a speciest (if there is such a word). If I had to pick from the worst of the worst of our human species to live and an endangered animal, that animal wouldn’t have a chance.

        It’s sort of disturbing in my mind that people could be so dismissive of human life just because it’s plentiful (currently) on the planet. I know we should share the planet with our animal, plant, brethren, etc. (not advocating destruction of species or environments to be clear) but if it a situation between”them” or me, it’s going to be them.

        In this case, if they are going round up and throw away human life to make a point, they better be getting EVERYONE in the chain, not the “face” of the problem that the media/government decided to pin it all on.

      1. Yes, yes, kill everything for my pleasure and appetite  That’s what I was saying.. /s

        Read the second paragraph again about “getting jail time” and stop projecting your issues onto limited info..

  2. This is a really disproportionate sentence. If anything involving animals should be this harsh, it should be penalties for participating in dog fighting, which are typically slaps on the wrist and not a big enough deterrent.

    1.  I would be up for putting dog fighting supporters away for much much longer, let alone letting them back in the NFL.

      1. The headline was a trifle misleading. I was wondering how the endangered whale got in to the restaurant in the first place, how it placed its order and since when has it been illegal to serve cetaceans? Was the whale under the age to order alcohol or something?

  3. Seeing as there is more and more and more scientific evidence that cetaceans are self-aware and maybe even sapient, if you take the position that they are non-human people, the sentence seems more than reasonable. The problem is, are we setting a precedent for treating serving whale meat as accessory to murder, or are we just throwing a ton of little things at someone because there is no precedent? It will be interesting to see what position is taken in court. 

    1.  Could you please point me to some credible reports that show scientific evidence of cetaceans as a whole being self-aware and maybe even sapient?

  4.  Where did they get the whale meat? It would seem a couple of chefs with harpoons cutting up a whale on a beach would draw attention.

  5. I can’t be the only one who thought the headline meant the chef was endangering the faces of whales.

  6. Yeesh, you guys are going to leave it to me to point out that this is almost certainly precisely the same over-charging-to-induce-a-plea that is being condemned from the Aaron Schwartz case?

    1.  And you’d be comparing ringo to kujira. The cases are nothing alike. The Massachusetts US attorney was grandstanding on a case no one else wanted to pursue.

  7. Are we still outraged about Aaron Swartz? Then we should at least be bothered by 67 years for serving whale meat. I surely believe selling endangered whale meat is a crime worthy of punishment, but this “67 years” crap is exactly the sort of absurd overcharging and stacking of punishments that everyone, myself included, decried when it happened to Aaron. The prosecutor should publicly say they believe the sentence should be something much lower.

        1. False/inappropriate persecution is the problem in the Swartz case.

          Here, the crime is very real, and not a one-off thing.

          1. I personally feel Swartz’s actions didn’t actually violate the CFAA (and I wrote that at the time of the indictment), but I’m in the minority of lawyers on that. Professor Orin Kerr, for example, went on at length about how the prosecution was meritorious under the law.

            If we assume Swartz really did violate the CFAA, then his actions were mostly certainly not a “one-off.” He had gotten into similar trouble for yanking files from PACER, and he made it clear he didn’t feel these sorts of restriction on the usage of academic papers was appropriate.

            I agree “the crime is very real” here. Does it not bother you to see 67 years tossed around casually for a non-violent regulatory violation? It is this sort of mentality, in which a person could be thrown in prison for the remainder of their life without having endangered a single human being, that enables prosecutors like Ortiz to throw the book at everyone — Swarz included.

    1. You are a lawyer and you didn’t get that he’s only been charged, not sentenced? And it’s for a whole pile of Federal felonies (multiple counts of smuggling, conspiracy, obstruction & lying to the Feds), and serving the whale meat is the least serious charge, and it’s potential maximum consecutive sentences, not concurrent? Color me unimpressed. Or maybe you could get this knocked down to a parking violation? You better run, I think I hear an ambulance.

      1. So you were untroubled by Aaron Swartz being threatened with 35 years — eventually 50 years by way of the superseding indictment — because it was merely “potential maximum consecutive sentences?” If so, then what objection, if any, did you have to his prosecution? Or do you just think everybody who runs afoul of the law deserves to be threatened with decades in prison?

        1. Way to side step the snark over your critical reading skills. And you are a champion straw man builder.

          If you are any kind of lawyer at all, and yes, I know you a a real self-promoting ambulance chaser, you know that the AUSA in this case is piling on because Yamamoto lied to the investigators, a big no-no with the Feds. You also know the probable outcome. Given that the importer’s case was disposed of with a misdemeanor conviction, they weren’t too gun-ho on this to begin with. The diff is, I’ll wager, the importer knew it was a fair cop, his lawyer advised him of this, and he took his medicine. Yamamoto probably didn’t listen to council, tried to get cute and obstruct and lie his way out of this, and now he will have to pay the piper. And yet, the future is not grim for the chef, and you and I know it, if the chef comes hat in hand to the AUSA.

          By focusing on SIXTY SEVEN YEARS!! THE SKY IS FALLING!! you and all the press are headline grabbing. In the Swartz case it was the Federal prosecutor who was headline grabbing. It’s different. Swartz was being made into a villain for political gain with Big Content at the potential cost of 30+ years. The whale chef did something wrong, and when caught, violated numerous other laws to avoid a misdemeanor conviction and a fine, so yeah, he deserves to be threatened. And no, not everybody deserves the same treatment.

          Your blather reads like MAX KENNERLY:Trial Lawyer for Plaintiffs, a Quinn Martin Production. Read, respond thoughtfully, and don’t grandstand so you can cite this on your website as “quoted on BOING-BOING”, self-promotion boy. Let’s call you Arnie Becker from here on,’tay? You got an L.A.Law vibe going on.

          Gratuitous lawyer joke: Two lawyers are walking down the beach. They pass a beautiful girl in a bikini and one lawyer says to the other, “Gee, I’d love to fuck her.” The second lawyer responds, “Out of what?”

          1.  Sorry,  ‘Nous. I’ve been stuck in the hospital/bed for almost a month, I have insomnia, and I’m an asshole.

          2. A man gets arrested while traveling on business. The police take him to jail and before they lock him up, they ask if he wants to make his one phone call. “Yes, do you have a criminal lawyer in this town?”  said the man. The cops replied, “We do but we haven’t be able to prove it yet.”

          3. That joke isn’t about lawyers, it’s a double ethnic slur; the participants are a priest and a rabbi, and the person they spot is a young child.

            Your point is noted: it’s wrong to throw decades of prison at non-violent people commit regulatory violations of copyright law, but it’s okay to throw decades of prison at non-violent people who commit other regulatory violations.

            I’m sure your nuanced position will be overwhelmingly adopted by U.S. Attorneys across the country, and you should congratulate yourself for taking a useful stand against the culture of overprosecution. 

          4. I wasn’t aware “priest” was an ethnicity.

            But that’s just nitpicking… the “joke” is whatever the teller makes it.  In this case, the joke is NOT about a priest and a rabbi, it’s about lawyers.  It may have started that way, but that doesn’t mean he’s guilty of some faux pas because of the problems in the original: the original has been adapted to remove those problems (of course, it still has other problems).

          5. The joke (in its original form) implies that priests want to sexually abuse children and rabbis want to cheat them out of their money. I would assume that first part was a knock at priests exclusively, but the rabbi part isn’t really about rabbis, it’s a reference to Jews being greedy. (AFAIK, there’s no special stereotype about rabbis being greedy as compared to Jews as a whole.) The latter part can thus be read as clarifying the former part: Catholics have no problem with the sexual abuse of children, and Jews have no problem stealing money. 

            I know, a joke is in the eye of the beholder. My point was that, despite the wealth of lawyer jokes available, the silly ad hominem directed my way was just a bowdlerization of a much more offensive (or funnier — depending on if you were offended) joke. If you’re going to insult someone, don’t use the PG-13 version of an R-rated joke. 

          6. “That joke isn’t about lawyers, it’s a double ethnic slur; the participants are a priest and a rabbi, and the person they spot is a young child.”

            Uh, no, it’s not. It’s about two lawyers and a bikini girl. You do not actually get to arbitrarily replace words in other people’s statements and then declare them racists, no matter how much making shit up may appear to strengthen your position. The fact that someone took a highly modular joke and replaced clergy with lawyers does not make it secretly about religion, and your absurd legalistic wrangling is really not helping dispel any lawyer stereotypes.

    2.  Actually, if I wasn’t opposed to the death penalty, I would have no qualms with it here. Swartz copied electronic files, no actual physical damage was caused. The chefs here were helping a species down the road to extinction.

  8. When I lived in Tokyo, I once saw whale meat for sale at my local supermarket. It was vacuum-packed like bacon, looked gross and was expensive.

    These guys should go to jail but the sentences are absurd.

    Whale should absolutely be illegal, but shark fin consumption (on the rise as China becomes wealthy) is a far greater threat to ocean ecosystems and seafood supply. Perhaps Boing Boing can find a suitable article. Meanwhile:

  9. He should have a fine and maybe some prison time and maybe lose his restaurant, depending on how much whale he sold. But holy shit, that’s overkill. There’s murderers who get less.

  10. As long as all of the speculative traders and fraudulent bank sector vampires that caused the recession of one of the largest economies the world has ever seen are able to stay comfortably out of jail, I won’t be able to take any sentence like this even remotely seriously.

    1.  I  don’t know if this makes it worse or better, but he’ll never be in jail for more than a year.

  11. This is asinine. The lying to the feds part can certainly get you in deep water with the DOJ, but let’s be realistic. It’s a whale. This should be a ticketable offense and nothing more. Get cited, pay your fine, don’t serve any more whale. Done.

    1. Get cited, pay your fine, don’t serve any more whale. Done.

      What an oddly Pollyannish view. In the real world, this is what happens: Get cited, pay your fine, continue serving whale because it’s much cheaper to get the occasional fine than to give up such a lucrative business.

      1. Whale meat isn’t a lucrative illegal business in the U.S. It is extremely rare. There was was one high-end sushi restaurant that would sometimes serve a whale meat dish to customers whose bill was already in the hundreds of dollars. It existed purely for the novelty of it. 

  12. Yeah, it’s f***ing crazy that what this dude did could even in theory land inside for that length of time.

    However, insanely long sentences are handed down all the damn time in federal court.

    If someone can get 10 years for slinging a couple of crack rocks (and they can, and do, and will usually serve 8.5 of those years), then yes, I think someone should go to prison for 60 years for serving endangered whale meat sushi.  

    Of course I don’t think either crime deserves either of those sentences, but if one is fair, than the other is.

  13. And yet, no one has been convicted – oops – even charged for:
    The Libor scandal, The sub-prime mortage frauds, HSBC’s drub money laundering, Wells Fargo steering minorities into more-expensive sub-prime loans, Capitol One’s misleading their customers, and Standard Chartered and ING Bank illegally doing business with Iran.

  14. Am I the only one who thinks the “environmental activists” who went “undercover” to eat the whale meat and were served it several times… really just wanted an excuse to try whale meat?  “It’s horrible that they’re selling whale meat!  Horrible.  I guess I have to eat it though.  And pretend to enjoy it because I can’t blow my cover.”

    1. Since almost every description of the taste of whale that I’ve ever read has boiled down to, “Meh,” I’m going with no.

      1. But the same taste would happen to the people who really do want to buy and eat whale meat, and yet they still do.

        So maybe it’s not about the taste, but the thrill of the taboo… which can be just as much motivation for the activists, particularly if they can justify it to themselves as “for a good cause”.

        (Or maybe everyone just says “Meh” because they don’t want it to become popular and drive up the price!)

        (I don’t know why I’m defending what was, ultimately, an off-the-cuff joke I don’t really believe has much of a basis in reality, so I’ll stop now I think…)

  15. The species isn’t really endangered by hunting. Its at 1/3 of its original population and recovering. If the hunting is controlled, (as it is only the USA, Norway, Iceland and Japan + a few more hunt whale and it is controlled) a stock of 80.000 is much more than enough to sustain itself. 

    While I haven’t tasted Sei, I have tasted a couple of other types of whale and for the most part they taste like beef, only richer and oilier. 

    Slap on the wrist.

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