The Stilt Fishermen of Sri Lanka


Stilt fishing is a method of fishing unique to the island country of Sri Lanka, located off the coast of India in the Indian Ocean. The fishermen sit on a cross bar called a petta, tied to a vertical pole and driven into the sand a few feet offshore. From this high position, the fishermen casts their lines, and wait until a fish comes along to be caught. Although the approach looks primitive and ancient, stilt fishing is actually a recent tradition. The practice is believed to have started during World War II, when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots prompted some clever men to try fishing on the water. At first, they started fishing from wrecks of capsized ships and downed aircraft. Then, some began erecting their stilts in coral reefs. The skills were then passed on to at least two generations of fishermen living along a 100-foot stretch of southern shore between the towns of Unawatuna and Weligama. The catch is meager — either a variety of spotted herring or small mackerel — and the returns these fishermen pull from the sea are dwindling. The practice is unlikely to last much longer other than as a tourist attraction. The 2004 tsunami that devastated much of the Indian Ocean coastline forever altered the Sri Lankan shoreline and reduced access to fish using this method.