(Reuters) - Two Americans face federal arraignment next week in Maine on charges that they were part of a smuggling ring that brought narwhal tusks into the United States from Canada for illegal sale.
Selling narwhal tusks is legal in Canada, where the Inuits hunt them for subsistence, but it is not allowed in the United States.
Known as "unicorns of the sea," narwhals are medium-sized whales that can grow up to 16 feet long and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds (1,600 kilograms).
They are native to the Arctic Ocean, and the males have a single, spiral tusk that can grow up to 9 feet.
Jay Conrad of Lakeland, Tennessee, and Andrew Zarauskas of Union, New Jersey, stand accused of buying tusks from two unidentified Canadians who allegedly sneaked them across the U.S. border in a false-bottomed utility trailer, according to court records.
The court records did not provide details of the investigation or how the four came to be arrested.
They face an array of federal charges of money laundering, smuggling and violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, under which importing the tusks is illegal.
The most serious charges carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. The two men are to appear on January 11 in U.S. District Court in Bangor.
Court papers say the trading went on from 2000 to 2010, during which time the Canadians allegedly made hundreds of sales.
They advertised the tusks as originating from an area around Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, about 2,000 miles north of Montreal.
The tusks can be sold legally in Canada, where they fetch as much as $5,000.
Narwhals are not considered an endangered species, although scientists say they are among the mammals most threatened by climate change. The whales dive as deep as 6,000 feet underwater through fissures of Arctic ice to feed on deepwater fish such as halibut.
The melting Arctic ice cap can expose narwhals to orcas, their main predators, scientists say.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Richard Chang and Kenneth Barry