Tomakomai fisheries and the CCS project

Today’s fieldwork involved a visit to the Tomakomai Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations. This was one of the most important pieces of work I’ve done on this project so far, as it hammered home just exactly what is at stake when we undertake carbon dioxide storage in a marine environment.

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Fisheries are hugely important to Tomakomai, just as they are elsewhere in Japan. So it goes without saying that anything that may even be perceived as having the potential to have effects on fisheries requires very careful consideration. The Sakhalin Surf Clam (known locally as hokki) is central to fisheries in Tomakomai, and in recent years has become a very high-value product. What makes this even more pointed in the case of sub-seabed carbon dioxide storage is that it is the biological and physical characteristics of the seabed off the coast of Tomakomai that make the hokki so distinctive in taste. Hence there is a real responsibility to understand precisely if and/or how sequestered CO2 may interact with the marine environment.

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This, however, is not just an economic matter. This afternoon I was brought into a room, from which were hanging a series of foot-high portraits depicting previous cooperative leaders. The stairs on the way up to the office were adorned with giant posters of the different varieties of fish landed in the port. The fishers of Tomakomai are fiercely proud of their heritage, of the quality of their produce. This is what hangs in the balance when we make claims as to the security of stored CO2 – not just people’s livelihoods, but their whole sense of self and identity can depend on claims that we know we can store CO2, and/or that we know what the effects will be if for any reason it were to find its way into the sea. This is why stringent monitoring is so important in the case of Tomakomai, being as it is one of the world’s first offshore storage trials undertaken in the name of demonstrating CCS. Moreover, as identity is something that stretches over generations, it figures that extending this monitoring over the long term is of the utmost importance.

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Equally, however, the fisheries cooperative in Tomakomai are well aware of the risks posed by environmental change more widely, not least climate change and ocean acidification. And much like my work in Iwaki over the last few years, the sense I get here is that those working for ‘the government’ at a very local level have a pivotal role to play in establishing the conditions of trust that are a necessary precursor for dialogue on how to proceed with something like CO2 storage. Maybe this is because officials working in the town halls or district offices too live in the area, eat the local produce, and bear the risks of any decisions taken. I will need to think more about this, but it seems as if the municipal authority are vital in connecting up national-level discourses with very local and very legitimate concerns.

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On a slightly lighter note, the hokki themselves are delicious. I have had them every day this week at some point, including this mighty curry the other day. Those are regular-sized chopsticks on the left, and this is a curry intended for three persons which I managed about 70% of myself – with a little help from my collaborator Dr Jun Kita of RITE for the rest. The restaurant was full to the brim, so much so that we had to queue for 40 minutes just to get a seat. Inside, people sat eight or nine to a table, steaming bowls, plates and dishes being ferried out of the kitchen. Photos of famous people visiting the restaurant, news cuttings of positive reviews in national newspapers, and even screengrabs from the national broadcaster NHK of TV talents eating the curry, were plastered over the walls from floor to ceiling.

Underpinning all of this, of course, was the hokki and other local seafood. Cultural value, pride, and economic benefit, all coming from the sea. When it comes to CO2 and the marine environment, then, this is why there is a huge responsibility that comes with the claims to knowledge those undertaking the storage make. It also serves as a timely reminder that ‘risk communication’ is not about correcting misunderstandings and bringing everyone to understand ‘the science’, but rather a process that respects and takes seriously the views of those whose livelihoods depend on the very same marine environment.

This ongoing research is possible due the the support of the UK CCS Research Centre International Collaboration Fund.

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