BANGOR – A New Jersey man accused of smuggling tusks from protected narwhals into the United States was sentenced Monday to nearly three years in prison for conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering.
Andrew Zarauskas, 61, of Union, New Jersey, was accused of buying more than 30 tusks over nearly six years from two Canadians who brought them illegally across the border, sometimes in a hidden compartment in a trailer. He was sentenced to 33 months and also ordered by a federal judge to forfeit six narwhal tusks, a narwhal skull and about $85,000.
Narwhals are known as the unicorns of the sea for their spiral tusks that can grow longer than 8 feet. The marine mammals, which are native to Arctic waters, are protected by the U.S. and Canada.
Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden said Monday that the Justice Department is committed to fighting to save protected wildlife species from “poachers and wildlife traffickers.”
“This is yet another case where dedicated investigators helped stop an international smuggling ring attempting to profit from the illegal exploitation and trade of vulnerable and threatened marine species,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
Zarauskas, who plans to appeal, thought he was purchasing legal tusks because he believed they were older than a 1972 treaty that forbids importing them, said defense lawyer Steve Smith.
“He was simply a customer. He believed he was getting tusks from a legal source,” Smith said after the hearing. “He thought the source was giving him pre-1972 tusks.”
Smith also said the 61-year-old Zarauskas was given a three-month delay to report to prison because of “health considerations.”
Federal prosecutors said two Canadians smuggled the tusks into Maine and shipped them via FedEx to Zarauskas and a Tennessee man, who has pleaded guilty in the case in Maine. A second Tennessee man has pleaded guilty in federal court in Alaska to trafficking tusks, officials said. Both men are awaiting sentencing.