Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fishing on stilts.

Fishing is not an uncommon sport or past time or means to catch food and the methods of catching fish don't really differ much from one place to another. Rod and reel or just string or a net.....not too many options. But the Sri Lankans have managed to bring a whole new twist to fishing....stilt fishing. It is a method that is uniquely Sri Lankan and it is primarily centered the region around Galle.

The fisherman sits on a cross bar called a ‘petta’ that is tied to a vertical pole planted in the coral reef. Sometimes two or more stilts are joined together to form a fence or *wata* so that more than one fisherman can fish at the same time. The fishermen hold the stilt by one hand while seated and fish, with rod and line, in the other hand. They usually sit against the wind.

This just does not look comfortable to me and I'm guessing that if you ask the fishermen, I few might tell you the same.


How it all began.  The history of stilt fishing is not clear though it is believed to have started shortly after World War II.  Prior to that time, fishermen fished from rocks that protruded above the sea surface. Since there not enough such rocks, were available for all the fishermen, some fishermen used discarded ‘iron poles’ that the G.I.'s left behind to make stilts by planting them in the reef.  It wasn't long before the supply of iron poles ran out and so the resourceful fishermen turned to using wooden poles.  Lo and behold, not only was there a readily available supply of wood for the poles but the wooden poles turned out to be more durable than the iron poles and they could be easily shifted from one spot on the reef to another.

Anatomy of a stilt. The stilt is made by tying two sticks to a pole that is 3 to 4 meters in length. These two sticks are tied at a height of about 2 meters. The free ends of the two sticks are tied to another stick which in turn is tied to the main pole to support the cross bar to form a triangular structure. One or more shorter sticks maybe tied below the ‘petta’ to serve as steps.  Got it? :-)
 
The stilt is usually driven about 0.5 to 1 meter deep into into the reef. It takes at least two people to drive the pole down. The distance between any two stilts is such that the lines of two adjacent fishermen will not get entangled.

The wood used for the stilt are from different tree species depending what's readily available to the fisherman.  The most popular wood is  alstonia (Alstonia macrophylla) which is a widespread genus from the dogbane family.

The line is about 0.5 meter longer than the rod and is tied to the upper end of the rod.  Today, the fishermen use synthetic line but back in time, the line was made from fiber from pineapple
(Ananas sativus) leaves.

The catch.  Most of what the fishermen catch are small species fish including herring and mackerel.  On a good day up to 1000 fish can be caught by one fisherman.  Each fish is sold for just a few cents so it is a very hard way to make a living. Not surprisingly though, the sight of the stilt fishermen at work has become a popular tourist attraction and some of the fishermen will charge money for having their photos taken.



The season. The fishing season basically takes place during monsoon season which starts around April and ends sometime around October.  So, no only do these poor men have to sit on the uncomfortable wooden plank seats for hours on end but they have to do it when the rains are the most ferocious!   The upside is that the stormier the seas, the higher the catch rate.

Each fisherman usually fishes three times a day from about 5:30 to 8:30 am, 10:30 am to12:30 pm and in the evenings from about 3:30 till sunset.

Despite its long tradition, the stilt fishing disappeared for a short time after the devastating tsunami that hit the country in 2004. It's now returned and I want to see this sight on my trip - tourist trap or not.  As much as I enjoy fishing, I don't think I will try it out though :-)