Three stilt fishermen on their poles in the tide
These stilts are probably rented by ‘actors’ performing for tourists. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Survival through adaptation

When it comes to sustainable fishing, the pole fishermen of Sri Lanka are in a class of their own.

Although more to do with the limitations of their angling model than any conscious attempt to conserve fish stocks, there is method in their madness.

These days, the real target of the baitless hooks dangling in the surf is not so much the small herring and mackerel skittering about below. Tourists, like me, are easier and more lucrative prey.

But who can begrudge them: lean men perched precariously on slender wooden poles, wafting sometimes violently above an incoming late afternoon tidal surge.

Adapt or die

The scene before me captured the essence of why we must adapt, or fall off our respective perches.

The stilt fishermen are apparently unique to Sri Lanka, and the group I watched from the rocks down the road a bit from the historic Dutch fort of Galle had just started their third shift of a normal, searingly hot day.

They sit a couple of metres above the water, facing the prevailing breeze on the crosspiece of a triangle of sticks held together with twine. They usually curl one arm around the pole and the other flicks a bamboo rod with a small hook at the end. No bait or lures.

Alstonia wood

Their stilts of alstonia wood (Alstonia macrophylla), driven a metre or more into the reef, are adorned with water bottles and plastic bags for the catch.

Close-up of brightly coloured stilt fisherman on his pole
Their stilts of alstonia wood are driven a metre or more into the reef. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The whole thing looks like a hangover from ancient times, but it’s not.

There were no Sri Lankan stilt fishermen until World War II, when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots encouraged some lateral (or, in this case, vertical) thinking.

At first they used the wreckage of capsized ships and downed aircraft, but the wooden poles have proven much more durable.

Meagre catches

After a couple of generations selling meagre catches at local markets – plus the massive impact of the deadly 2004 tsunami – there are few legitimate stilt fishermen left.

Where once 500 men perched above the tide in a 30 km stretch between Unawatuna and Weligama, now there is just a handful. And most of them are ‘actors’ on rented stilts.

Brightly garbed

These often brightly garbed stooges are there to put on a show for the tourists, who happily fork out considerably more than the value of a bag of herring to watch and photograph the anglers doing their stuff.

How do they collect the money from way out there on their stilts? Simple. They have a very efficient commission agent on shore. And in case you were wondering, I think 1000 rupees (about $10) is a fair price to watch the show for as long as you like.

Story ©Natural Images 2017

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©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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