Oysters are a popular, if pricey, feature of many a Christmas and New Year meal in France, but their seasonal popularity also provides rich pickings for thieves. After losing three tonnes, shellfish farmer Christophe Guinot came up with a solution to help police track down the culprits.
France is Europe's biggest oyster producer: 85,947 tonnes were sold in 2019, worth an estimated 398 million euros.
A large majority are sold at the end of the year when families traditionally tuck into the odd dozen of plates (flat) or creuses (cupped) oysters.
With high demand over the festive season, it's a busy time of year for farmers, but also for thieves.
Despite gendarmes watching over oyster beds and new technologies, such as tracers camouflaged in an oyster or drones, poaching continues apace.
A farmer in the Charente-Maritime region, western France, had three tonnes stolen in October/November – worth some 20,000 euros.
'You've won your weight in oysters!'
After another shellfish farmer, Christophe Guinot, was robbed of a similar amount, he hatched his own sleuth-like plan, inserting notes into some of the oysters which help police find the thieves.
Guinot farms in the coastal lagoon of Leucate near France's border with Spain. The shellfish are reared in cages, attached to a metal frame to stop them drifting away. But they can't be watched over 24/7 and poachers take boats out to the cages and pluck them from the water.
Guinot came up with an ingenious method to deter the theft. He empties an oyster shell, inserts a tiny rolled-up note, glues the shell back together and drops it into the cage.
The note tells whoever opens the shell: "you've won your weight in oysters!" and invites them to claim their prize.
Anyone claiming their prize can be asked where they bought the oysters, and if it was not from a place that Guinot supplies, he could get the police involved.
Since putting the method in place in 2016, Guinot says there have been no new oyster thefts on his farm.
"It has had a dissuasive effect," the 60-year-old farmer told Reuters.
Fellow producers from the area have followed his example and also planted notes among their oysters.
So far no one has claimed the prize from Guinot himself, though some had been claimed from neighbouring farms, he said.
In at least some cases, the prizewinners had been sold stolen oysters, and police were alerted.
Word has spread and appears to have created a deterrent effect: after 19 oyster thefts in the area in 2017, there were none in 2020, according to the French Interior Ministry.