STARING out across the slate grey Thames at Erith, a Swanley eel fisherman cuts a lonely figure as he contemplates another day on the water.

But Gary Hillier is as passionate about his work as he was when he first started plucking the slippery fish from the depths more than three decades ago.

Back in 1981 the 60-year-old says he was one of more than 30 fellow eel fishermen on the river - a number which has now dwindled to six, with only two making a living from it.

The Lynden Way resident no longer sells his catch and is content to fish for fun, stock his own freezer and keep a close eye on eel levels in the Thames.

He told News Shopper: "It bothers me because it’s an old tradition that’s slowly dying out.

"There are records of Hilliers who were fishing in Victorian times going back to the 1800s.

"I would like to see some more fishermen coming through so we can carry on."

News Shopper:

Wild Eel One out on the Erith waves. 

Mr Hillier keeps the Environment Agency updated on the eel population as he prowls the river in his boat Wild Eel One but says it is now much harder for new fishermen to get government permits.

The chairman of the Eel Fisherman’s Association has seen national numbers plummet from more than 400 when he started to fewer than 125 now.

He says the EA "danced to Europe’s tune" by shortening the fishing season in 2010 and tried to do the same in 2011.

But Mr Hillier managed to get it extended from April 1 to December 10 by proving eel numbers were not as low as feared.

This is good news for his wife Jean, 62, who is particularly partial to smoked eel while other family friends also enjoy the ‘poor man’s supper’ stewed, barbecued or jellied.

Mr Hillier said: "I love being out there. I’m on my own and I don’t have anyone to answer to. I just like being out in the open.

"I saw a bloke laying nets down here years ago and that is how it started for me."

News Shopper:

Mr Hillier heads out for another day on the water. 

Environment Agency response

An EA spokesman said: "Eel fishing is currently restricted to those who are existing fisherman who have held a licence or authorisation since 2008.

"Eel scientists estimate that eel populations have crashed by over 95 per cent across Europe. Eels are still present in our waterways, but if the elver (juvenile eel) populations don’t improve soon, the long-term future of eels in the UK looks bleak.

"The cause of the decline is unknown, but it is unlikely to be a single factor. Many wetlands that eels depend on to grow and mature have been lost or changed in recent decades.

"The rivers so vital for their migration to and from the sea have many more obstacles. Fishing for elvers and eels may have an impact.

"Then there is the one factor common to all eel — the time they spend at sea, where survival may be affected by changes in ocean currents and temperatures which may be linked to climate change."

News Shopper:

The eel fisherman with his catch. 

Eel facts

  • The largest eel Mr Hillier has ever caught was a 7lb 4oz whopper in 2000 - large females normally reach around 4lb.
  • Eels migrate more than 4,300 miles to the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean off north America to spawn before their offspring make the return journey to European rivers.
  • They are scavengers who feed along river beds and will not be active when the water temperature is below 9C - bad news given Britain’s three cold winters in a row.