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A bulk carrier, bulk freighter, or colloquially, bulker is a merchant ship specially designed to transport unpackaged bulk cargo, such as grains, coal, ore, and cement, in its cargo holds. Since the first specialized bulk carrier was built in 1852, economic forces have led to continued development of these ships, resulting in increased size and sophistication. Today's bulk carriers are specially designed to maximize capacity, safety, efficiency, and durability.
Today, bulk carriers make up 15–17% of the world's merchant fleets and range in size from single-hold mini-bulk carriers to mammoth ore ships able to carry 400,000 metric tons of deadweight (DWT). A number of specialized designs exist: some can unload their own cargo, some depend on port facilities for unloading, and some even package the cargo as it is loaded. Over half of all bulk carriers have Greek, Japanese, or Chinese owners and more than a quarter are registered in Panama. South Korea is the largest single builder of bulk carriers, and 82% of these ships were built in Asia.
On bulk carriers, crew are involved in operation management and maintenance of the vessel taking care of safety, navigation, maintenance and cargo care, in accordance with international maritime legislation. Cargo loading operations vary in complexity and loading and discharging of cargo can take several days. Bulk carriers can be gearless (dependent upon terminal equipment) or geared (having cranes integral to the vessel). Crews can range in size from three people on the smallest ships to over 30 on the largest.
Bulk cargo can be very dense, corrosive, or abrasive. This can present safety problems: cargo shifting, spontaneous combustion, and cargo saturation can threaten a ship. The use of ships that are old and have corrosion problems has been linked to a spate of bulk carrier sinkings in the 1990s, as have the bulk carrier's large hatchways. While important for efficient cargo handling, these allow the entry of large volumes of water in storms or if a ship is endangered by sinking. New international regulations have since been introduced to improve ship design and inspection, and to streamline the process of a crew's abandoning ship.