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In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

 
 

WELIGAMA, SRI LANKA — A few dozen meters from the shoreline, fisherman T. H. Sena sits motionless on a wooden stilt, waiting for tourists to come and pose for pictures. A picture in return for money.

Stilt fishing is a recent innovation, first adopted just after World War II when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots prompted people to try fishing further out on the water. Two generations of fishermen have eked out this physically demanding existence at dawn and dusk along a 30-kilometer stretch of southern shore between the towns of Unawatuna and Weligama.

Since the tsunami in 2004, however, this mode of fishing has declined drastically as a livelihood in of itself and has now become more of a tourist attraction with the help of the government of Sri Lanka, which promotes it as an attraction. Many of the true stilt fisherman have taken up farming, or reselling fish purchased at larger markets.

For stilt fishing, a vertical pole with an attached crossbar is embedded into the sea floor among the shallows or on a riverbed. The crossbar allows the fishermen to be seated a couple of meters above the water, causing minimal shadows on the water and therefore little to no disturbance among the sea life. The stilt fishermen then uses a rod from this position to bring in a good catch from the comparative shallows of the sea or from the river.

During monsoons, these fishermen catch fish on boats and sometimes on stilts too and later sell them in markets. And, for the rest of the year, they pose for pictures for tourists. The money collected from tourists is divided into equal parts among the fishermen, with a share also going to the tour operator who brings the tourists to the shore.

In 2009, the year in which the 26-year-long civil war came to an end in Sri Lanka, tourist arrivals numbered about 448,000. In 2017, tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka reached an all-time high of 2,116,407.

“We need to make a living out of something,” fisherman T. H. Sena said.

Ahmer Khan is a freelance documentary photographer based in Kashmir. He tweets @ahmermkhan

In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
According to the fishermen, the art of stilt fishing requires a great deal of patience and endurance. Once they learn to maintain their balance on the narrow wooden pole, the rest of the process involves waiting for several hours in complete silence, to catch the fish.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
At lunch, the fishermen sometimes have fruit and most of the time sit together playing cards and drinking alcohol.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
Fishermen climb higher on the poles after waves hit the shore in Weligama along the southern coast of Sri Lanka.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
Fishermen make their own fishing equipment. The stilt is known as ritipanna, which is made by tying a small crossbar on a pole, made of kaduru wood. The pitta, the fishing rod, is made of kithul.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
Jagat Kumara, 34, has been fishing since he was 12 years old. His father and grandfather were fishermen, too. He is now the leader of this fishermen group, who ties up with the tour operators in arranging tourists for stilt fishing tours.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
Most of the time the fish they catch are small – each just a few centimeters long, and not enough to feed a family.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
On a good day, the fishermen can earn $5 posing for pictures.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
55-year-old T. H. Jayasena has been fishing for the last 35 years. He learned the art from his father and grandfather.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
Chinese tourists take selfies near the stilt fishing spot.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
Fisherman sit on their poles with a hope of catching a fish before heading home.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
A fisherman heads home after having a busy day with the tourists in Weligama district of southern Sri Lanka.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction
Many of the children of the fishermen do not want to follow in their fathers' footsteps.
Image Credit: Ahmer Khan
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