By Yereth Rosen
Two Tennessee men have admitted to illegally selling the pointed tusks of more than 100 narwhals, engaging in an operation that federal prosecutors said spanned several years and from the eastern coasts of the United States and Canada to Alaska.
The men, Jay Conrad of Lakeland, Tenn., and Eddie Dunn of Eads, Tenn., worked with co-conspirators to illegally traffic the long tusks from Canada into Maine, and from there to ivory collectors in Alaska, Washington and elsewhere, prosecutors said.
The two used eBay auctions and private email accounts to sell the narwhal tusks, in violation of U.S. law, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Skrocki. Though it is legal for Canadian residents to sell narwhal tusks to other Canadian residents, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act forbids any non-Alaska Native to sell marine mammal parts to any other non-Alaska Native, Skrocki said.
Conrad, who pleaded guilty on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Maine to three counts of trafficking and money laundering, sold between $400,000 and $1 million worth of narwhal tusks, prosecutors said. Dunn, who pleaded guilty on Dec. 2, 2011, in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to two trafficking counts, sold about $1.1 million worth of the tusks, prosecutors said.
“A fair number of these wound up in Alaska,” Skrocki said.
The trafficking activities occurred between 2003 and 2009, according to court documents.
The tusk sale operation was initially detected by Alaska-based investigators with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Skrocki said. Dunn, who faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, is scheduled to be sentenced March 20 in Anchorage. No sentencing date has been scheduled yet for Conrad, according to documents from federal court in Maine.
One of the co-defendants, Andrew Zarauskas of New Jersey, is scheduled to go on trial in Maine on Feb. 4. The other defendant in the case, Gregory Logan, is expected to be extradited from Canada to Maine, prosecutors said.
The investigation and prosecution, conducted by several government agencies, have been prolonged because of the case’s complexity, Skrocki said: “It’s a long-term investigation. It spans the country, and it involves a foreign country, on top of that.”
Narwhals live in Arctic waters off Canada, Greenland and Russia, but not in waters off Alaska. They are protected by international law as well as by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They are not listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but they are considered “near threatened” on the Red List maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
With their long, single tusks, narwhals are sometimes credited as the inspiration for the myth of the unicorn. They are sometimes called the "unicorn of the sea."