BANGOR, Maine (AP) — A New Jersey man accused of smuggling narwhal tusks into the United States was convicted Friday of federal crimes, several of which carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
A federal jury in Maine convicted Andrew Zarauskas of Union, N.J., on six counts, including conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering for his role in a smuggling ring, prosecutors said. He was released on $25,000 unsecured bond while awaiting sentencing.
Narwhals, which are medium-sized whales native to Arctic waters, are known as the unicorns of the sea for their spiral tusks that can grow longer than 8 feet. They are protected by the U.S. and Canada.
The tusks can sell for thousands of dollars, but it's illegal to import them into the U.S. In Canada, Inuit hunters are the only ones allowed to harvest the animals for their meat, skin and tusks.
Zarauskas' attorney, Stephen Smith of Bangor, said the verdict would be appealed. "We think the government was overly aggressive in prosecuting this case and created some very important appeal issues," he told the Bangor Daily News.
Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, said the federal government takes the crime seriously.
"Zarauskas and his co-conspirators flouted U.S. law and international agreements that protect marine mammals such as the narwhal for their own personal financial benefit," Dreher said in a statement issued in Washington, D.C. "The Justice Department will continue to investigate and prosecute those engaged in this insidious trade in order to protect species for future generations to enjoy."
Federal prosecutors said two Canadians smuggled the tusks into Maine in a trailer with a secret compartment and shipped them via FedEx to Zarauskas and Jay Conrad of Lakeland, Tenn. Conrad pleaded guilty last month to illegally trafficking narwhal tusks. Another man, Eddie T. Dunn, of Eads, Tenn., pleaded guilty in federal court in Alaska to trafficking tusks, officials said.