THE fishing rights dispute is centuries old and shows no sign of being resolved. The last time it came to a head and war broke out was only three years ago, when French fishermen stormed an unoccupied Channel Island, lowered the Union flag, and raised the Tricolour.

A similar event by scrap metal merchants on South Georgia, one of the Falkland Islands, some years previously was a precursor to Margaret Thatcher going to war with Argentina. On this occasion both the French and British Governments were embarrassed by the developing situation. Both were anxious to play it down. Not so the fishermen.

Guernsey fisheries officials were retained aboard a French vessel that was fishing illegally; three Royal Navy sailors were also similarly abducted by the French vessel La Calypso; the White Ensign was burned by angry French fishermen; there were fierce battles both at land and at sea; and St Peter Port was blockaded by 37 French fishing boats.

Peace was not restored until a gentlemen's agreement was reached two-and-a-half years ago. This held out some hope a permanent agreement could be reached, but the protagonists are not gentlemen. They are fishermen. As a result, the

battle lines are once more being drawn over the right to lay nets in disputed waters.

When the weather improves seven French boats are expected to sail into waters of the Bailiwick of Guernsey to lay claim to fish lucrative spider crabs and lobsters that their ancestors have always caught.

Guernsey and Alderney fishermen, who since time immemorial have worked areas around the Bailiwick and were in French waters until recently banned, are declaring what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If they cannot fish in French waters, the French cannot fish in theirs.

Yesterday the weather was on the side of the Foreign Office negotiators. French fishermen were loath to enter disputed waters when the waves were reaching 20 feet. Nevertheless, a fresh Norman conquest attempt was anticipated once conditions improved. An unarmed French coastguard vessel was expected to accompany the fleet. The States of Guernsey has hired a special vessel to keep guard over their fishermen.

The respective navies of the UK and France were reported to be keeping out of the fray as long as they can.

Rules about where trawlers may fish legally vary from area to area around the Channel Islands and France. Jersey has a three-mile limit. The areas around Guernsey and Alderney are more complicated. However, in certain areas there is a six-mile area.

As long as the fishermen were allowed to work each other's area, an unhappy truce prevailed. The 1993 troubles began after an EC agreement enabled Britain to draw the six-mile fishing limit around the Channel Islands. That upset the French fisherman and brought the short-term blockade of St Peter Port.

There were angry scenes in France when Channel Islanders landed their catches. It was said French fishermen were putting to sea armed and ready to take on anyone who prevented them fishing areas that were traditionally theirs.

Two years ago the authorities of Guernsey, the UK and France reached agreement. The way ahead was seen to be through a Modus Vivendi. This was a temporary working agreement that would allow fishermen from both sides to co-exist while longer term arrangements were sorted.

The Modus Vivendi nominally allowed Bailiwick boats back into French waters where they had previously fished. It also allowed French fishermen into areas around Guernsey. It's hardly surprising that since then there have been disputes, with the Channel Island fishermen complaining the larger French fleet had got the best of the deal.

`` `Tough luck', has been the only response we have heard from the French to our problems,'' one aggrieved Channel Island fisherman said. ``Well enough is enough. We will stand by our rights!''

As a consequence, the Guernsey authorities gave notice the Modus Vivenid would be terminated. The French authorities were told that from last Sunday any vessel found fishing in the Sark Box or Haricot fishing areas around the Baliwick would be prosecuted. Hence the French anger and their determination to highlight their plight by sending in an armada to protest.

The last thing the British and French Governments wanted is this issue should once more come to a head. Both sides are anxious for a quick resolution.That said, the French have on this occasion called upon a maritime helicopter to oversee events. Both nations believe the last people it should be left to resolve a potential crisis at sea would be the fishermen themselves.