MANAHAWKIN, N.J. - The slow and steady efforts of students at a New Jersey Shore environmental science school to protect turtles are about to pay off.

They have gotten state legislators to introduce a bill to make it illegal to catch or take diamondback terrapins from the wild, and to require the state to investigate ways to protect the population.

Students at Manahawkin's Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science have been studying and trying to protect terrapins since 2002, educating the public about them and researching the turtles' numbers.

Cars kill many turtles each year, and their habitat in coastal marshes is shrinking.

Michael Signorelli says he and other students in the school's Project Terrapin are excited at the prospect of legal protection for the animals that they have studied and cared for over the years. The bill would remove terrapins from the state's game list, ending a confusing regulatory situation that once had them listed as a species of special concern, but also had them on the list of animals approved for hunting.

John Wnek, the school's supervisor, said the population of terrapins on Sedge Island near Barnegat Inlet has been declining, from about 100 in 2002 to the low 70s now. And 21 percent of the animals that student researchers catch show signs of injuries from boats.

Wnek said the turtles were widely hunted for food in the 1880s, cooked in recipes heavily dependent on sherry.

"When Prohibition came around, people realized how terrible they tasted," he said.

The turtles are more in demand now as pets, he said.

The students contacted Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who sponsored the bill with Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak (D., Cape May).

"It's a good lesson in civics," Van Drew said. "They had an idea and reached out and now they're actually making something good happen."

The bill is awaiting hearings in two legislative committees.