Elliot Morley, the fisheries minister, said the move would affect the seas south-west of Britain.
He said: "This is the first step towards ending the unacceptable toll of dolphins in drift nets.
"The UK is pressing for the agreement of other EU member states to take similar immediate action as well as to agree to a phase-out."
The licence will apply to all UK vessels over 10 metres and will prevent additional vessels joining the fleet pending EU agreement to a phase-out.
Mr Morley said that from 1 February, the only UK vessels eligible to fish for tuna using drift nets, for which a separate non-transferable licence will be required, will be those which did so in either 1996 or 1997.
"This will limit participation to a maximum of 10 vessels, and some of these have been approved for a decommissioning grant which they can take up by the end of February."Reuse content