Britain is to change policy to back a scheme allowing commercial whaling to resume.
The Government, which led the move to introduce an international ban on killing whales, is to allow “managed” slaughter of populations of minke and humpback whales.
Its policy shift, to be announced at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference in London next month, could lead to hundreds of whales being harpooned for the Norwegian and Japanese markets.
The compromise scheme follows attempts by pro-whaling nations to bring to an end the international moratorium on commercial whaling.
Pro-whaling nations such as Iceland have joined Norway and Japan on the IWC in trying to out-vote the anti-whaling nations and scrap the ban, which came into force in 1986.
Environmental groups fear that the change in policy and the introduction of the so-called revised management scheme (RMS) for whaling will give a green light to the “cruel” trade.
Greenpeace warned last night that allowing managed whaling to proceed would be the first step to scrapping the international ban.
“Greenpeace is very clear about this. We are opposed to all commercial whaling,” said a spokesman.
“If the RMS is agreed at the meeting it may well lead to the lifting of the moratorium. It will legalise and legitimise commercial whaling.
“A government spokesman said Britain was preparing to back the “practical” solution to try to ensure that the ban holds.
“We are formally opposed to whaling. If we support the RMS it is for practical reasons,” said a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
“It is exploring ways to keep everybody happy. We believe that the alternative may be if you don’t bring one in it could become a bit of a free for all.”
The RMS would include a structured system for counting, monitoring and killing whales where the population is healthy.