Considered singly and up close, the roughly foot-long baitfish called the Atlantic menhaden is a pretty unassuming-looking creature.

But this oily, big-mouthed member of the herring family – also commonly called bunker, fatback, pogy and bugfish – can swarm in mighty schools measured in the tonnage, forming conspicuous dark patches in surface waters. This past weekend, drone footage captured some breathtaking aggregations of menhaden off Fire Island along the southern shore of Long Island.

Mike Busch reported on the menhaden masses and shared his aerial footage on his website Fire Island & Beyond, plus footage from a beach cam that picked up the school rippling offshore.

The drone video shows bottlenose dolphins edging the bunker baitball and occasionally rifling in for a bite. Dolphins are only one of many, many marine hunters for which menhaden are a dietary mainstay: a host of predatory (and commercially important) fish such as striped bass, bluefish, and swordfish feast on them, as do seabirds, ospreys, bald eagles and Western North Atlantic humpback whales.

Last fall, a bunker bonanza in the same waters turned up some fantastic images of gorging humpbacks as well as menhaden skittering into the shallows and even up onto the beach to escape voracious bluefish. (Menhaden chased this way into coastal rivers may rapidly deplete local oxygen, resulting in mass die-offs; we reported on such a fish kill in Long Island's Shinnecock Canal last November.)

Filter-feeders on plankton, menhaden are also prey for a broad assortment of predators, and serve as a vital pillar of the nearshore Western Atlantic ecosystem from Nova Scotia down to Florida.

And while people don't prize these greasy forage fish as a culinary delicacy, we do harvest them for other purposes: for bait and for a "reduction" industry that processes them for products such as oil, pet food and fertiliser. By weight, in fact, menhaden are the most significant catch along the US East Coast.

While overfishing has been an issue in the past, the Atlantic menhaden stock is currently doing well – good news for both human and non-human fishers, and for anyone who appreciates the ancient spectacle of a glinting bunker cloud darkening the coastal seas.

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Header image: Mike Busch