Even if whales can be humanely hunted without any threat to their populations, the UK will always oppose any slaughter of the huge marine mammals by other nations, said fisheries minister Tony Baldry.
The moratorium on commercial whaling is 10 years old this year, but two nations - Japan and Norway - continue to kill hundreds of minke whales every year in Antarctic waters and the North East Atlantic.
At next month's annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Aberdeen the two countries will be arguing that stocks have now recovered and management techniques improved to the point where commercial whaling is acceptable and the moratorium should be lifted.
For years, Britain's opposition had been based on the low state of the stocks following decades of over-exploitation, the cruelty of techniques such as explosive harpoons and electric lances, and defects in the management of whaling.
Whalers might soon be able to counter all those objections. But Britain will still vote against any resumption at IWC meetings. "Commercial whaling is opposed by the vast majority of our citizens and by Parliament," said Mr Baldry.
His announcement follows a year long review involving the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAFF), the Foreign Office and the Department of the Environment.
"We've decided to make our stance more explicit," said a MAFF official. But the ministry had no explanation of what makes whales so special. Its change of policy is based on public and cross-party opinion.
The United States, New Zealand and Australia have made similar declarations in recent years. Yesterday wildlife groups were surprised and delighted. James Martin-Jones of the Worldwide Fund for Nature said: "It's a dramatic development and a very welcome one."
Britain sold the last of its whaling ships and its IWC quotas to the Japanese in the late 1950s because stocks were so low that the industry was no longer profitable.
The IWC was founded 50 years ago to exploit whales rationally, but it failed dismally. The great majority of its 39 member nations are now opposed to whaling and have no interest at all in what little remains of a once great industry, but the original aims of the commission and the treaty underpinning it remain in force. Any change to these would require unanimity.
Britain's announcement increases pressure on Japan and Norway to withdraw from the commission. But if they did they would face international opprobrium, and the risk of trade sanctions from the US.Reuse content