Stilt Fishing Srilanka’s Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

WELIGAMA, SRI LANKA — A few dozen meters from the shoreline, fisherman T. H. Sena sits motionless on a wooden stilt, waiting for tourists to come and pose for pictures. A picture in return for money.

Stilt fishing is a recent innovation, first adopted just after World War II when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots prompted people to try fishing further out on the water. Two generations of fishermen have eked out this physically demanding existence at dawn and dusk along a 30-kilometer stretch of southern shore between the towns of Unawatuna and Weligama.

Since the tsunami in 2004, however, this mode of fishing has declined drastically as a livelihood in of itself and has now become more of a tourist attraction with the help of the government of Sri Lanka, which promotes it as an attraction. Many of the true stilt fisherman have taken up farming, or reselling fish purchased at larger markets.

For stilt fishing, a vertical pole with an attached crossbar is embedded into the sea floor among the shallows or on a riverbed. The crossbar allows the fishermen to be seated a couple of meters above the water, causing minimal shadows on the water and therefore little to no disturbance among the sea life. The stilt fishermen then uses a rod from this position to bring in a good catch from the comparative shallows of the sea or from the river.

During monsoons, these fishermen catch fish on boats and sometimes on stilts too and later sell them in markets. And, for the rest of the year, they pose for pictures for tourists. The money collected from tourists is divided into equal parts among the fishermen, with a share also going to the tour operator who brings the tourists to the shore.

In 2009, the year in which the 26-year-long civil war came to an end in Sri Lanka, tourist arrivals numbered about 448,000. In 2017, tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka reached an all-time high of 2,116,407.

“We need to make a living out of something,” fisherman T. H. Sena said.

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