Traditional Stilt fishing in Sri Lanka

Image credit: D. S. K. Pitigala and Ananda sugathapala (SriLanka)         Text: Abdel Rahman El Gamal

Background: the “stilt fishing” or ritipanna is a tradition fishing technique which is practiced especially around the towns of Kathaluwa and Ahangama, Sri Lanka. Historically, stilt fishing in Sri Lanka started after the Second World War when some innovative fishermen used discarded ‘iron poles’ to make stilts by planting them in the reef. Afterwards, timber poles were used and in fact were preferred by fishermen due to its durability and lighter weight especially when made of alstonia. The fishermen sit on a cross bar tied to a 3-4 m vertical pole planted about 0.5-1 m into the coral reef. Hence, the fishermen sit at a height of about 2 m.

Fishing techniques: The movement of the fish is the most important single element in stilt fishing. The fishing season starts when the fish return to the reef with the onset of the monsoon and extends till the end of the monsoon. The fishing periods during the day is related to the in and out movement of the fish during their nocturnal feeding and resting. Line and hook are the only gears in use in stilt fishing. Each fisherman fishes 2-3 times a day ending by the dusk as the fish leave the reef at sunset. The main species targeted are koraburuwa (spotted herring), and bolla (small mackerel).The catch is temporarily stored in a plastic bag tied around the pole or fisherman’s waist. Stilt fishermen realize that if reef fishes get disturbed, the may not come back for years. That is why stilt fishing is quite and very unobtrusive fishing method. The fishermen wait patiently for hours on their stilts for fish to come to their un-baited hooks.

Threats to stilt fishing: tourism carries most of the threat to stilt fishing. Tourists who visit the area get attracted by the sight of the stilt fishermen, stay close by, photograph, bathe in the sea and so breaking the quietness that the fishermen have been trying to maintain for decades. The expansion of tourism and tourists bathing have disturbed fish populations in some areas causing a sharp decline in fishing activity compared to earlier times. There is a concern of shifting this traditional practice into touristic attraction.

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