She Speaks for the Whales – An Interview with Jenna Harlacher

Microplastics are a hot topic right now in the world of marine science. So hot, that even popular news and consumers have picked up on it. While some of us panic over our own consumption of microplastics, others are looking at the impact of microplastics in the environment. SMEA’s very own Jenna Harlacher is part of the latter group. When she’s not analyzing marine mammal acoustic data with NOAA AFSC (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center), she’s in the lab looking for microplastics in orca poop. I caught up with Jenna (from 6-feet apart, of course) on her work with killer whales in the Puget Sound region.

Jenna at Shi Shi beach on the Washington Coast. Photo Credit: Nico Knowles


Brittany: Hi, Jenna! I’m so fascinated by your thesis work – can you tell us a little more about it? 

Jenna: Hi! My thesis research investigates the presence of microplastics in two populations of resident killer whales (fish-eating killer whales); our beloved Southern Residents and Alaskan Residents found in the Gulf of Alaska. I am investigating if there is a significant difference in the microplastic burden between the two populations, as they occupy different ranges. This is done by counting the microplastics isolated from fecal samples and classifying them by their type and color. This research is conducted with Kim Parsons at NOAA NWFSC [NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center] who funded our fecal sample analysis. My thesis research is just the preliminary study on a hopefully much larger study!

B: Fecal samples, eh? I gotta know more. I feel like you mentioned poop sniffing dogs once…

J:  I actually think the poop sniffing dog works for UW! For this project, though, I used archival samples collected by NWFSC and North Gulf Oceanic Society in Alaska. NWFSC has a huge archive of killer whale fecal samples collected [under NMFS research permit] for other projects, which is part of an ongoing collaboration with North Gulf Oceanic Society in Alaska. A lot of microplastics research is done with archival samples, actually. It’s a way to start learning without having to go out and collect new samples. There is a drawback to this though, as we weren’t able to control for potential sources of contamination that may occur during sample collection either from scientists’ synthetic clothing or plastic equipment used to collect samples. Polar fleece that we all love to wear when it’s cold, can actually contaminate the fecal samples with microfibers. They also use something similar to a pool net to collect the fecal samples from the water and this net could potentially lead to small microplastic fragments also contaminating the fecal samples.

Killer whale fecal samples after being thawed, before being dried in the oven. This is the first step in isolating the microplastics from the feces. We then add hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) to digest all organic material. Then we filter that onto a 1 micron filter paper to be inspected with a stereomicroscope. Photo Credit: NWFSC, NOAA Fisheries


B: Wait, rewind. Polar fleece = microplastic? 

J: I know, sad, huh? All of us Seattlites love our fleece. When you wash your synthetic clothing in the washing machine, tiny little microfibers come off and go into your wastewater. Depending on your area’s water treatment facilities, most of this (or, at least some) then ends up in the ocean. Even when you dry your fleece, some can come off into your dryer vent and into the air. From what I’ve read, this happens throughout the life of the fleece. There have been some products available (like Guppyfriend and Cora ball) that claim to contain or collect the microfibers and limit them from entering the wastewater. However, I personally do not know the validity of these claims. 

B: Crazy! So will you be able to tell if any plastic that passed through the killer whales was from our clothes? 

J: Potentially! We are verifying 10% of the microplastic and microfiber particles isolated from each sample. This means we will be able to confirm if the microparticle is a synthetic polymer. We do this using RAMAN Spectroscopy, which is being conducted here at UW in the Materials Science and Engineering Department. From this, we are able to find out the polymer type and can determine the source of the microplastic fragment or fiber.

Microfibers from Alaskan Resident killer whale fecal sample. Photo Credit: NWFSC, NOAA Fisheries


On left microfiber and right microplastic fragment, both from Southern Resident killer whale fecal sample. Photo Credit: NWFSC, NOAA Fisheries


B: Wow, sounds pretty complicated. Have other  researchers done this sort of work, or are you guys part of a pioneering crew?

J: We are the first, that I know of, to do microplastics research from fecal samples of killer whales. However, this topic is a hot one right now and lots of research is being done and has been done in the last 5-10 years. The Seattle Aquarium is also conducting research on microplastics and starting to analyze their sea otter fecal samples. I think this publicly became a hot topic when people found out that many of our face and body scrubs contain tiny little plastic microbeads.

B: Ugh, those beads are my nemesis. I’m so glad you’re doing this work! What’s the dream outcome, here? Maybe the dream outcome as a scientist, and a dream outcome as an orca lover.

J: Well, the dream outcome as a scientist would be that this project continues on. I have done the preliminary work of determining the presence [of microplastics]. Now we need to better understand what role these microplastics play in the health of killer whales, and what that looks like for an already declining population. It would be awesome too, to dive deeper into the whole food web to better understand bioaccumulation of microplastics and associated contaminants. Learning about this may also be beneficial for our declining salmon stocks. 

As an orca lover, this is all difficult. Best case scenario would obviously be there aren’t any microplastics. But that is not our reality. So I guess knowing that, the dream outcome as an orca lover would be that these microplastics are not causing harm to the whales.

B: Let’s hope not. Well, Jenna, thanks so much for the work you’re doing! I can’t wait to see where it takes you. Anything else we need to know before we sign off here?

J: I think that’s all! Thanks for talking with me!

[Let the record show that I expected Jenna to sign off with a whale pun. Oh, whale.]