To some they are skilled sportsmen who endure lengthy timeframes while they patiently await their families fill. To others, they are a subtle form of imposter profiting from unsuspecting tourists. The stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka – Ritipanna, as locals know them – remain a mystery, but their plight is vivid.
It’s the end of World War II and food stores are low in Sri Lanka. It’s now common practice for the village’s men to wake early each morning and clamber inside small wooden boats heading into the dawn for a day of fishing. Using large, handmade nets, the men pull into boats scores of mackerel, yellow fin tuna and frigate, in an epic display of strength and team work. Each catch rewards profitably when the men on-sell to the local market after a long day at sea.
In the years following the War, employment opportunities are low and the income provided by fishing is attractive to local men. It isn’t long before dozens of boats exploit the sea bed though, and fishing spots become increasingly over crowded. The need to adjust is evident.
The first of the stilt fishermen begin to explore new fishing methods by placing upturned boats a short distance off shore. Standing atop the wooden hull enables fishermen to balance just above the waves, in depths where hungry schools of fish feed. Although fewer fish are caught using the new method than when when at sea, there are less men with whom to divide the day’s catch. A hungry family at home remain fed from the efforts.
Soon the fishermen realise that shadows their body cast’s in the water are scaring the fish away from needy hooks. The shadows from above combined with the unpredictable tides and roaring surf create manic chaos alerting fish to the risky perils close by. Modifications are clearly needed for the practice to be successful. An idea is born.
Stilt fishing requires fixing a long wooden stick into the sandy sea bed, few metres from shore. Above the tide line, affixed to the stick is a wooden cross bar which is fastened sturdily to bear the weight of a man. The stilt fishermen climb the stick shortly before dawn each day, then too not long before dusk, positioning themselves out of shadows reach. Enduring the strength of the Sri Lankan surf, they await in the hopes of feeling keen bites of the hungry fish below. Holding handmade lines crafted from wood which are void of reel, they throw flimsy nylon line into the clear ocean, where their beady eyes glance sight of a passing fish. Perched as though nailed to a crucifix, they cast forth their baitless hooks rhythmically flinching back with a well rehearsed technique which now demands little concentration.
Springing to action with the calls of the dawning sun, their technique preys upon small sardines whose eyes mistake the hook’s shimmery reflection for the gills of lonely marine life. Quick tactics similar to those used in fly fishing, hook the sardine’s tiny mouths, their poor eyesight is no match for the cunning stilts-men. With dawn then comes larger fish who lurk hungrily for a feast of sardines, and so they too become preyed upon by the mastered fishing skills.
A skilled stilt fisherman’s daily catch can equate to a few kilograms of sardines in little more than an hour’s time; enough protein to fill the family and to sell in the market. But of course, the price of fish is low in Sri Lanka and the monetary exchange is not enough for a comfortable living. During the heat of the day’s sun, the fish are less hungry too, so most of the stilt fishermen assume other roles in their local community during this time of day, to sustain the families living expenses. In 2004 the catastrophic tsunami brought change to the Sri Lankan coastline once more; stilt fishing would barely survive.With the fateful 30 metre wave that hurled across the coastline carrying away the lives of too many innocent souls, the government’s cautionary reaction again brought change to stilt fishing.
In a bid to protect coastal communities who had already lost so much, authorities financed relocation inland for coastal Sri Lankan families. Little did they know, the change provides housing stability in placed of working skills; fishing is not an inland job.
Born of necessity at a time where Sri Lanka was adjusting to post war economy, stilt fishing was a professional necessary for both income and sustenance. Nowadays the art has an entirely different motivation.
You will notice the recognisable wooden stilt crucifixes currently present on the Sri Lankan coast from Ahangama, Koggala, Welipenna, and Kathaluwa to Thalarambe. Testament to a profession of times gone by there are small groups of maybe 3 to 6 wooden stilts protruding from the waters edge; a far cry from the larger groups dating back to pre-tsunami when local villages were positioned near the ocean.
Of the sparse stilt clusters dotted along the coast, two techniques have evolved. Tradition has yet to fade completely with some Sri Lanka locals arriving before dawn to climb their permanent daily crucifix. With a duty to feed their loved ones, they diligently cast back and forth in a peaceful display of responsibility. Dressed in little more than a loin cloth and oversized hat they gaze into the horizon, alone. Only they are to know what thoughts are imagined.
And then there are an array of crucifix’s which serve the purpose of producing greater revenue at the hands of tourism. When traveller’s are spied by the fishermen with the trademark expensive camera shutter dangling from their neck a clever stunts-man is ready to make profitable demands in exchange for the coveted shot. It is perhaps the work of refined business practice, or perhaps of desperation born from a need to feed hungry mouths at the end of a long and arduous day.
And so with the idea that stilt fishing has become a tourist attraction for nothing more than filling traveller’s blog pages with the necessary photos to earn followings, there remains hints of familiarity. Wooden stilts etched into the sandy Sri Lankan seabed offering glimpses of a trade which like many adjusts over time, but remains present to this day.