The south of Sri Lanka is known for its culture and its beaches, and if you put them together you may be lucky enough to witness this fishing phenomenon!
Stilt fishing is a method of fishing unique to the island country of Sri Lanka, known as “the Pearl of 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 meters offshore. From this high position, the fishermen casts his line, and waits 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 30 km stretch of southern shore between the towns of Unawatuna and Weligama.
The catch is meagre – 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 to people like me. The 2004 tsunami of the Indian Ocean forever altered the Sri Lankan shoreline and reduced access to fish using this method.
Fishing stops entirely during the annual monsoons. Today, few fisherman are willing to pass their stilts to their sons, instead renting them to “actors” who pose as fishermen for photographers and tourists. Whether they were real or acting, it was certainly a nice sight to see them ply their trade on the coastline in Galle.