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Louie Psihoyos Headshot

Show us The Science

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I directed a documentary called The Cove, a film about the capture and killing of dolphins in a National Park in Japan that few people even there know about. For that documentary the Oceanic Preservation Society's (OPS) black ops team and a band of filmmakers-turned-activists used high tech surveillance gear to penetrate a protected cove that shocked that world. Between the pre-Oscar party celebrations last month we got the OPS black ops team back together for another mission and made another shocking discovery -- against International law, several high end sushi restaurants around the world have been selling Japanese whale meat, some of it right here in America.

The following tells the story about how a group of animal rights activists, and the world's most prominent DNA surveillance scientist worked together helped close down one of the most notorious restaurants in America and expose rings selling whale meat around the world. The operation extended over about 5 months and went on to Korea where colleagues there discovered whale meat from Japan being exported under violation of Cites. Just a few minutes ago Seoul police served a search warrant to a restaurant Higobashi which was selling Japanese whale meat at the building of the foreign press club.

The vast majority of the world's countries are against the killing of endangered animals in but Japan issues itself a "scientific whaling" permit using a loophole in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) bylaws to continue commercial whaling. Every year since the moratorium they escalate the "takes" or kills in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary to include more and more protected and endangered animals. The 1986 ban on commercial whaling is widely considered by NGO's to be one of the greatest ecological achievements of the last century. It was a cause for celebration in the scientific and environmental community, heralding that countries could collaborate to solve environmental issues of great collective importance. For the scientific community it was an action that was 50 years too late. Since the 1930s, scientists from whaling countries like Norway and the U.S. were trying to get their countries to ban commercial whaling for some species because the evidence had been clear, the ethics of killing large brained, sentient creatures aside, the practice was unsustainable. At one time, there were more than 250,000 blue whales in the Antarctic and now, even 40 years since their killing was banned, there are still estimated to be fewer than 1,000 left. One of the last known sanctuaries was their wintering ground in Chile yet after the ban, the Japanese whaling fleet rented out that coastline and hunted down the largest animal ever on Earth until they were commercially extinct. A few stocks managed to survive species extinction only because they could not be found. In one of the most chilling scenes of our film, those same whale hunters are overheard bragging about the younger dolphin hunters before they kill an entire pod of pilot whales, including babies, "you used to be able to see blue whales horizon to horizon, just like the dolphins."

Trying to find the truth about how many whales are being killed and of what species is difficult to ascertain because not surprisingly perhaps, many whalers lie. For 40 years the Soviets had falsified catch records of more than 100,000 whales in the Antarctic. Not only was this illegal -- it also skewed the management scheme scientists were trying to develop to determine sustainability of the stocks. After the moratorium it was discovered that Japan maintained coastal whaling stations and falsified catch records for Bryde's and sperm whales. In Korea, a massive whaling program also continues under the guise of incidental fisheries or "bycatch."

One of the most prominent scientists trying to establish the extent of whaling and exactly which species are being killed is Scott Baker, who is a professor of the Laboratory of Conservation Genetics at Oregon State University. He uses DNA profiling techniques like those used in CSI investigations, but for whales. Scott features prominently in our movie to prove that much of the dolphin meat , which is extremely toxic, is sold in Japan, labeled as whale meat. He and his colleague Naoko Funahashi from International Fund for Animal Welfare have done hundreds of samplings of whale meat from Japanese markets around that country and in the past have found some disturbing trends. Many different species of whales are turning up, more than are that allowed to be killed under Japan's scientific permit. Because of overhunting there are fewer than 100 Western Pacific Grey whales left on earth. These creatures are so vulnerable to extinction that every new individual that is discovered is cause for celebration in the scientific and environmental communities. When three samples of a female turned up on Japanese supermarket shelves one year, it sent a shock through the environmental community that is still being felt.

Charles Hambelton, OPS's director of Covert Operations had heard from Zoli Teglas, the lead singer of Rise Against and Penny Wise, that the Hump, one of America's most prominent sushi restaurants was selling whale sushi. A haunt of celebrities and the well heeled, the Hump refers to pilots passing over the Himalayas -- as in "over the hump." The Hump overlooks the runway at the Santa Monica Airport. Zoli witnessed the legs of a turtle being cut off and it's blood being drained into wine glasses to be consumed by customers. Besides being a popular musician, Zoli is an animal activist. He is also a member of Sea Shepherd, the group notorious for harassing Japan's whaling fleet in the Antarctic. Recently, one of their boats, the Ady Gil, named after a another prominent animal rights activist in LA, was sunk after being rammed by a Japanese whaling vessel in the Southern Ocean.

We wanted to do a sting operation but because of the success of our film, Charles and I were too well recognized in the LA area. We enlisted the help of a colleague, Crystal Galbraith an animal rights activist with Save Japan Dolphins.org. A slight problem being that she was vegan. The dinner Crystal was ordering for us and federal officials is a very expensive chef's special called omakase "it's up to you" where the chef delivers an increasingly more adventurous range of seafood, sometimes to challenge the pallet of even the most adventurous customer. A meal for two can run nearly a thousand dollars. A sign on the door announced that if customers were uncomfortable with unconventional delicacies they should reconsider entering or sitting away from the sushi bar where exotic dinners were prepared.

With an array of covert equipment, small cameras, transmitters and receivers that we had used in our film, some of it on loan from Last Chance for Animals, we recorded the proceedings under the watch and advisement of federal officers from NOAA. Some food we could hear quivering on the table as it is placed before Crystal and her friend Heather Rally, a veterinarian who accompanied Crystal. What follows is a transcript from the last night of three stings while Crystal and Heather are presented with one of the last meals the Hump will ever serve. Roxanne and Ed are federal agents. Ed is at the sushi bar with two other agents, Roxanne is the parking lot alongside our vehicle while Charles and I work communication between all of them with phone text.

(Louie to Roxanne) They are ordering blowfish tonight!

(Roxanna to Louie) They r going to eat it?

Agents advise there is only one licensed chef in America that can legally prepare blowfish and he works in New York. It's unlikely that he's in Hump's kitchen tonight. Besides being illegal for the Hump to serve blowfish, improperly prepared can be lethal.

(Louie to Roxanna) I told them to order it and get a sample

(Louie to Ed) March 4th 8:21:They are ordering blowfish...

(Louie to Ed) 8:34: They were just served horse

(Louie to Ed) 8:45 Just served the blowfish - What could possibly go wrong?

(Ed to Louie) 10-4 on all. Keep it coming. I have a good seat. Its helping.

(Louie to Ed) 9:01: K - Tell me when you are done

(Louie to Ed) 9:17 Just mackerel now

(Louie to Ed) 9:17 Toro and sea urchin - nothing exciting

(Louie to Ed) Kobe beef and sweet shrimp

(Louie to Ed) I'm getting hungry - everyone else is eating at Typhoon - the restaurant below you

(Louie to Roxanna) 9:44 They just ordered the whale!

(Louie to Roxanna) Chef just came from 1st floor all the way up to third floor carrying something wrapped up

(Louie to Ed) 9:39 Whale coming now!

(Louie to Ed) The meat is usually a little darker

(Louie to Ed) Chef just came from 1st floor all the way up to third floor carrying something wrapped up

(Louie to Roxanna) Storage area for whale may be under the door below the "a" in Monica for the Santa Monica Airport sign..

It turns out the chef was stashing the whale meat in a cooler of a trunk of a Mercedes in the Parking lot.

(Roxanna to Louie) Nice

(Louie to Roxanna) Bingo!

(Louie to Ed) They just got the whale!

(Louie to Ed) 10:00: Did you see them cut up the whale at the sushi bar?

(Ed to Louie) Yes

(Louie to Ed) She has the sample stashed now

(Louie to Ed) They're bring one last sushi, dessert then check

(Roxanna to Louie) Ok can they also get cash receipt

(Louie to Ed) They will get the check soon!

Zoli organized the first protest at the Hump that drew hundreds of animal rights activists from around LA and attracted the international press. Having animal rights advocates all protesting together was an inspiring site for those like-minded gathered but didn't do much to inspire potential Hump customers who were turned away in droves. At that protest I met Ady Gil himself, a long mane of gray hair and a sharp wit. He was still writhing from the boat bearing his name which the Japanese whalers had sunk, "I paid a million dollars for that boat." Ady's carbon fibre biofueled speedboat had held the round the world record

Ady is an afficiando of all things high-tech and makes a good business around that industry. At awards ceremonies in LA leading up to the Oscar's there's a good chance that it's his gear and television trucks recording the event for the rest of the world to see. The large screen displays flanking the stages of those events are probably his too. After the protest Ady bought a new portable large screen display especially for the Hump. He set up the 10' projection screen on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and maintained a nightly vigil of protest with other colleagues engaging conversation with curious customers chatting and happily turning most of them away. In the parking lot a generator in his van juiced a powerful high definition projector rotating slides announcing the restaurant's various charges. Pilots landing at Santa Monica airport said they could see the screen when they were landing. Ady is a man of means and to prove to the owner that he is no ordinary animal rights hippie he parked his bright yellow Ferrari right next to his van that had the projector on top. When confronted by the owner and asked how long these shenanigans were going to keep up Ady said, "As long as you like - how about we start with 2015?" After a few weeks the Hump closed it's doors for good.

On it's website was the following announcement, "The Hump hopes that by closing its doors, it will help bring awareness to the detrimental effect that illegal whaling has on the preservation of our ocean ecosystems and species. Closing the restaurant is a self-imposed punishment on top of the fine that will be meted out by the court. The Owner of The Hump also will be taking additional action to save endangered species."

Hamstrung by the IWC loophole on scientific whaling, and Japan's ever expanding commercial program, America and some of our allies are considering letting Japan resume commercial whaling in return for some controls over scientific whaling for the next 10 years. Last month an IWC sub group was meeting in a closed meeting in Florida to discuss lifting the decades old moratorium. The Japanese government has been putting pressure to lift the ban since it began, buying votes from small impoverished, landlocked countries like Mongolia and Mali and all along the Eastern Caribbean.

In the 25 years of scientific whaling there has not been a single peer reviewed Japanese scientific paper that many scientists believe justified the killing of whale. And now there are a variety of non-lethal techniques available for scientists to gather biological information. John Fuller, a former IWC delegate from Antigua who was ousted after his country was bought off by Japanese delegates, "We've known for hundreds of years what a Minke whale eats, how many more do they need to kill before they know they are still eating krill?"

Scott Baker had told us about a restaurant that he and colleague Yayong Choi of the Korean Federation of Environmental Movements had discovered selling Japanese whale meat in Seoul.

Charles Hambleton and I went to Korea last month to investigate one of the largest hunts of whales in the world, second in some years only to Japan's. We decided to also stop by the restaurant. Again it was difficult to do undercover work even in Korea. Fans of The Cove were asking Charles and I to sign autographs on the streets. Because I was on the front pages of many of the newspapers it was decided I'd stay behind and Charles try to have a meal there with Yayong. The chef bragged to them that the whale testicle he served was from a Japanese Fin Whale. Also served were Minke and Sei whale, all he bragged were from Japan.

What's unique about the Korean hunt is that in Korea it is illegal - their entire hunt exists entirely on bycatch. A fisherman is only allowed to take a whale if it accidentally turns up and dies in their fishing net. An estimated 500 whales are killed every year in fishing nets. By comparison in a much larger country like Australia, only about 4 whales turn up in nets each year.

Choie said having a whale turn up in a fisherman's net is like winning the lottery because a whale can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. There is little incentive to release a caught whale and great incentive to catch whales, however they can and do report it as bycatch. Many of the whales are harpooned at sea, cut up and brought ashore and sold before the cause of death can be ascertained. Yayong showed me photographs of fishermen's boats that had devised ingenious methods to disguise their harpoon boats as fishing boats. Fisherman can slip whales up through the sides for quick processing and quick release mounting plates for easy harpoon gun removal if authorities investigate. This single loophole, where fishermen can legally sell bycatch has spawned an entire industry. In a one-mile stretch of oceanfront near Ulsan, there are more than two dozen whale meat shops that exist by selling only bycatch. Neon lit signs of happy whales line both sides of an avenue. It is such an open secret that the whale shops blatantly flank the local police station.

Scott Baker is also a scientific advisor to the U.S. delegation of the IWC and has a simple proposal, release the whaling countries' DNA registry. Of the last 25 years, that could well be the best science the Japanese whalers could ever provide. A small DNA sample of each individual killed could be released to authorities. They could then check it to ensure that when whale meat turns up in restaurants and illegal markets around the world, the individual has not been poached. Norway and Japan do this anyway and keep copious DNA records but are unwilling to share them with the scientific community. Why?

The Soviets had falsified catch records of whales in the Antarctic for nearly 25 years. They kept two sets of books taking more than 100,000 whales in the Southern Ocean than they reported. Not only was this illegal - it also skewed the management scheme scientists were trying to develop to determine sustainability of the stocks. Japanese coastal whaling stations also falsified catch records for Bryde's and sperm whales even after the moratorium. We have proved that there continues to be a thriving trade of illegal whale meat developing around the world. What we are saying to Japan and Norway is pretty simple; release the DNA registry and show us the science.